Wisconsin mask mandate defies state order, but will it stand?

Chancellor says it’s “my authority” to impose mandate.

Earlier this week, the University of South Carolina announced a mask mandate to protect students, staff and faculty from COVID-19 and the surging Delta variant. It didn’t last long. The attorney general in the conservative-led state stepped in and said it violated state law, so the university backed down.

A similar situation unfolded in Florida months ago when Nova Southeastern University put a vaccine requirement in place. That ended when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order barring publicly funded institutions from expecting proof of vaccination. NSUFlorida was forced to instead encourage them.

Those precedent-setting cases—at least on the higher education landscape—showed the control states have in determining what public institutions can ask of their communities. Because of that, there has been reluctance from some institutions in red states to try to impose mandates.

But the University of Wisconsin-Madison is not one of them. On Tuesday, it announced a mask mandate for anyone coming to campus, defying legislation from a Republican-led state committee that specifically instructed institutions to ask for approval before trying to impose such a requirement.

More from UB: State-by-state mask tracker

The top leader at UW-Madison showed defiance in defending her position, leaning on rising numbers of positive cases (the state of Wisconsin’s 7-day average of positive cases on July 1 was 79, and now it is 962) and the threat the Delta variant is likely to impose on campuses if masks are not required. There are also concerns emerging about two other variants that have infiltrated the U.S. in recent months—Delta Plus and Lambda—and the potential of all three to affect younger populations.

“Effective August 5, 2021, and until further notice, I am barring any individual, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status, from access to UW-Madison lands and buildings who fails at all times to wear a face covering,” Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote to the community.

Blank defended her position and defined her role during a crisis, saying “this order is pursuant to my authority…to establish access to UW-Madison lands and buildings in accordance with my responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of the University.”

Hours before and after a 6-4 approval that seemingly would prevent UW from issuing a mandate, Republican State Sen. Steve Nass issued this statement on his Nass Report blog:

“The legislature through Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules has told the UW System they can no longer ignore state law with regards to Covid-19 mandates impacting students and campus visitors. Government issued Covid-19 mandates and lockdowns have failed miserably in dealing with this virus. The path forward in addressing Covid-19 is not through excessive government mandates, but in the restoration of Americans being able to make voluntary informed decisions based on their individual health circumstances.”

What will the university do next? How will the state respond? Short of trying to impose fines, does it have the power to do more? Those questions likely will be tested or answered in the coming days. UW system Chancellor Tommy Thompson has backed the response of campus leaders during the pandemic.

“Given my experience as a former United States Health and Human Services secretary, I know the biggest threat to in-person classes this fall would be actions that strip the UW System of the tools it has so successfully used to date to address outbreaks and reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Thompson, a Republican who served under George W. Bush, said in a statement. “Just as we have this past year, the UW System will continue to use its authority to take nimble and reasonable steps that enable us to keep our campuses open for the education students need, parents expect, and Wisconsin deserves.”

And will further battles play out in other conservative states, especially in those that haven’t looked favorably on vaccine mandates? Several institutions in Alaska, Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, for example, all have mask mandates in place. Will they be forced to reassess their positions if prompted, as the University of South Carolina did?

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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