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UW Madison requiring masks indoors starting Thursday

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MADISON (WKOW) — Students, employees and visitors of UW-Madison's campus will be required to wear masks inside, effective Thursday.

Check out all of our coverage related to the coronavirus here.

According to a press release, the updated guidance is a result of the increase in COVID-19 cases driven by the Delta variant. Although Dane County has the highest vaccination rate in the state, cases are still on the rise — especially among those unvaccinated against the virus.

"Going back to masking is not a step that many of us wanted to take, but it is important to protect the health of those on our campus and in our community," the press release reads.

Masks are not required in dorm rooms or outside, but are in campus buildings and dining halls, as well as Madison Metro buses or other campus vehicles.

Lawmakers make new restrictions

The university announced the new mask mandate just hours after Republicans on the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR) passed a measure requiring the UW System to seek lawmakers' approval in order to enact COVID-19 restrictions or requirements.

The paper ballot vote, which came without debate Tuesday, passed on a 6-4 party line vote. Since the JCRAR oversees state agencies, their actions do not need approval from the full legislature, nor do they need the governor's signature.

"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," said JCRAR Co-Chair Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater).

Under the rule passed Tuesday, the UW System now has 30 days to declare an emergency and present any proposed regulations to the JCRAR, which can then suspend some or all of those proposed rules, which would include mask orders or mandatory testing for students who don't present proof of vaccination.

"Today’s action feels like a political statement," said UW System Spokesperson Mark Pitsch. "Our focus is to ensure we are doing what needs to be done now to safely open for in-person teaching this fall."

Nass's Chief of Staff Mike Mikalsen said Tuesday the senator was unavailable for an interview because he was doing events in his district. Mikalsen later said Nass would consider legal action following the announcement from UW-Madison.

"Senator Nass believes in the end the UW System will comply with state law," Mikalsen said in an email. "However, if the UW System decides to act unlawfully in the same manner as Governor Evers and former [former] DHS Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm did last year, then Senator Nass will support legal challenges to force compliance."

Pitsch provided a memo System President, and former governor, Tommy Thompson sent to chancellors last week. Thompson advised them to make decisions for their own campuses after consulting with local health officials.

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Looking ahead to move-in

According to the press release, officials are most concerned about the next two months as students arrive to campus from around the country and around the world.

"Given that we have students arriving from many destinations, we believe that requiring masks is the prudent thing to do. Our public health experts here at UW agree with this decision," the press release said.

This is even as UW-System reports that 80% of employees are vaccinated and expect at least 80% of students will be vaccinated.

Students and employees can still get free COVID-19 vaccines and testing through the University.

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