MADISON, Wis. — Face masks will be mandatory inside all University of Wisconsin campus buildings statewide under a policy adopted unanimously Thursday by the Board of Regents after interim President Tommy Thompson said there was no way to open safely amid the coronavirus pandemic without the mandate.
Thompson, the former Republican governor and U.S. Department of Health Services secretary, strongly advocated for the mandatory mask policy at his first regents meeting since taking the job last week. The policy also encourages the wearing of masks outside while on campus when physical distancing is not possible.
“I don’t think you can (open) safely without this mandatory policy," Thompson said. Thompson said that while some people argue that mandating the wearing of masks presents a constitutional infringement on their freedoms, the health and safety of faculty, staff, students and their families must take precedent.
Requiring masks on all 26 UW campuses comes after Dane County this week mandated the wearing of masks at all indoor buildings, starting Monday, and Gov. Tony Evers required state employees in state buildings to wear masks. There is no statewide mask policy.
Whether to wear a mask has become politicized, with many Republicans and President Donald Trump offering the loudest opposition to being requiring to cover up. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which Thompson used to oversee as HHS secretary, recommends the wearing of a cloth mask to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Thompson, who attended the meeting in person and wore a mask, said in talking with university employees he found no opposition to the mask policy. He called it “absolutely imperative” in order for professors to feel comfortable teaching classes in person. He said the university was committed to offering in-person classes.
Thompson also said a critical part of the UW's reopening plan will be securing state and federal funding to pay for COVID-19 tests, contact tracing and personal protective equipment. Thompson said he asked Evers for $100 million in funding to help pay for the effort and was also lobbying members of Congress for federal money.
Thompson said he’s also met repeatedly with the UW campus chancellor, provosts, faculty, and state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, with whom he says he has a “great friendship.” Thompson said he wanted to forge a better relationship between the university and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Evers' spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, did not immediately return a message about Thompson's funding request.
Thompson took over as interim president this month. It’s a precarious time as campuses struggle with deep budget holes caused by the coronavirus pandemic and complicated decisions about how — or even whether — to reopen campuses.
“I know a lot of students like me from small communities ... really would like to come back to campus," Thompson told reporters before the meeting. “I keep hearing from parents, I keep hearing from students, the importance of an in-person education.”
The current UW-Madison plan is for students to return in the fall to a mix of online and in-person classes. Other campuses across the UW System have similar plans.
The 78-year-old Thompson was chosen to lead the UW System after the lone finalist for the job, then-University of Alaska President Jim Johnson, withdrew from consideration. Ray Cross, who retired July 1 as UW president, is remaining for 90 days as an adviser.
Cross has called for campuses to consolidate their programs to help address expected budget cuts due to the pandemic, and said university employees should brace for layoffs.
Thompson said he was reviewing that plan and would formulate his own proposal.
Thompson expressed confidence that the university wouldn't be adversely affected by new rules issued by Trump's administration this week that would force international students to transfer or leave the country if they aren’t taking at least one in-person class, a move designed to pressure campuses to open.
Some 8,800 international students account for about 5% of the System's budget, between $30 million and $50 million, and losing them would be a “big hit,” Thompson said. UW will meet the requirements, even if an entire campus goes to online classes only, because system-wide there will be in-person classes offered, he said.
“We think we are outside of it," Thompson said of the new rules. "Our lawyers agree.”