As the weather warms and UW-Madison and Dane County COVID-19 restrictions have eased up, UW-Madison students are gathering outside and following varying degrees of COVID-19 public health guidelines — sparking concern among the campus community.
Public Health Madison Dane County issued Emergency Order #14 last week, which loosened restrictions that affect gathering sizes.
As of March 10 in Dane County, outdoor gatherings can now host up to 500 individuals while gatherings that are hosted inside and without food cannot exceed 350. Indoor gatherings with food and drink are limited to 150 people.
At the university level, as of March 8, outdoor gatherings are limited to 150 people and indoor events are limited to 50 according to a recent university press release. Only individuals in compliance with the university’s Safer Badger program can attend. Food and drink are not permitted at these university events.
Warmer temperatures have also inspired students to emerge and interact with the Madison community. Lakeshore Path and State Street have been bustling with students and residents.
Lake Mendota has also hosted student gatherings, although these have often been large events with little to no mask-wearing or physical distancing and took place before the recent loosening of gathering limits. Many students, community members and student groups have expressed their concerns and frustrations with such events. Associated Students of Madison Chair Matthew Mitnick is among those who are “absolutely disgusted” with the gatherings.
“I am really frustrated because their actions impact the health and lives of the greater Madison community,” Mitnick said. “Their actions should not be tolerated in any capacity.”
A lack of physical distancing and mask-wearing as well as the littering of an “obscene amount of garbage” are unacceptable, according to Mitnick.
“Maybe these students do not feel a sense of urgency in COVID-19 safety because they are in immense places of privilege where they do not have to worry about being healthy enough to work a job to pay for their education or have concern about access to medical services in the event they test positive for COVID-19,” Mitnick said. “These same students will now put the health of local service workers in jeopardy.”
“It is the service workers who have no choice but to put themselves at risk to earn a living during the pandemic,” continued Mitnick. “On the other hand, these students can absolutely make the choice to not gather in large numbers.”
Ryan Rezania, a member of the executive board of the Interfraternity Council, described the gatherings on Lake Mendota as “unfortunate,” as “people turned an eye to COVID regulations” and left trash on the lake. Rezania maintains that those in Greek life “care about campus and are responsible for [the] environment.”
On Monday, the IFC organized a "Mend Mendota" event where eight IFC chapters and one Panhellenic Association sorority assembled to pick up trash left on the lake as a result of the weekend’s gatherings.
The event was organized to reshape perceptions of the IFC. They pledged to be proactive in cleaning up litter, holding members accountable and taking more sustainable actions in the future.
“It is irresponsible and because of actions like this, the pandemic continues to rage on,” Mitnick said about the gatherings as a whole.
“Groups and gatherings on Lake Mendota can pose their own risks, both related to COVID-19 and the dangers of thinning ice,” said UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone.
Both McGlone and University Health Services (UHS) Director of Marketing and Health Communications Marlena Holden uphold that it is critical for students to remain in compliance with campus testing and continue to follow public health guidelines and safety protocols.
“We urge everyone to wear a mask and maintain six feet,” stressed Holden.
Because the lake is not on campus, it is under the jurisdiction of Dane County and any concerns about events like those of this past weekend should be reported to PHMDC, the university said.
Marc Lovicott, the Director of the University of Wisconsin Police Department, reiterated this sentiment and highlighted that any on-campus public health violations should be reported to the university’s student conduct office.
“General public can call the non-emergency dispatch number if they would like to report a gathering that is not in compliance with the public health emergency order,” said Sarah Mattes, the PHMDC Communication Manager, about events occurring off-campus like those on Lake Mendota.
“If we know about gatherings in advance that may violate our orders, we can reach out to the individual(s) planning to host the gatherings to ensure they understand the rules and we can do compliance checks as well,” said Mattes, emphasizing that it is important to provide as much information as possible when reporting a gathering either before it happens, during the event, or after.
Like McGlone and Holden, Mattes maintains that although the gathering size limits in Dane County have increased this week, “distancing and masking is still required for the safety of individuals and the community.”
“We continue to work with the university to ensure all gatherings comply with our orders and that appropriate action is taken by PHMDC, the city, the county or the university,” Mattes said.
Some students, like Mitnick, believe that the large student gatherings are indicative of the UW-Madison administration’s lacking coronavirus response.
“The university is not actively working to prevent events like this in any capacity,” Mitnick said, citing ASM’s failed Mask Ambassador Committee.
The Mask Ambassador Committee was intended to promote campus COVID-19 safety measures, with mask ambassadors serving in student government roles. This committee was designed as a way to promote COVID-19 protocols, but also as a legal loophole that ASM hoped would enable the creation of a COVID-19 student relief fund.
According to Mitnick, Dean of Students, Christina Olstad, shut the program down and was unsupportive of its creation, describing it as “confusing and misleading to students” and “against campus communication and legal guidance.”
“Within mere days of Dean Olstead saying this, hundreds of students gathered without masks, further proving the need for a Mask Ambassador program,” said Mitnick.
Olstead did not respond to a request for comment about the recent events on Lake Mendota.
When asked about the university’s handling of COVID-19 overall, Mitnick was transparent in his view.
“The university has not promoted public health guidelines,” Mitnick said. “The administration continues to go against leading health experts by hosting in-person classes and activities.”
Mitnick also highlighted how he feels that some students felt pressured to take in-person classes due to the “inequities of virtual learning” and that, despite student calls for a Pass/Fail grading option given the circumstances of the pandemic, the university has not acted.
“The university must listen to the Teaching Assistant Association, United Faculty & Academic Staff, University Labor Council and the UW-Madison BIPOC Coalition in implementing a Moral Restart,” stressed Mitnick. “One in which students and workers do not bear the burden of COVID-19.”
For gatherings happening in real-time, individuals can call the non-emergency Madison police line at 608-261-9684 to report events violating orders off-campus, as well as the non-emergency UWPD line at 608-264-2677 to report gatherings on university property, according to Mattes. Mattes emphasized that respective police departments will contact PHMDC, the City Attorney’s Office or the County Corporation Office when appropriate.
“Unless the gathering is associated with a known organizer, it is hard for us to follow-up after the fact,” continued Mattes.
The community can also contact PHMDC at firstname.lastname@example.org to share concerns about public health violations.
Sophia Vento is the Editor-In-Chief of The Daily Cardinal. She previously served as the College News Editor. She has covered breaking campus, city, state and sports news, and written in-depth stories about health, culture and education. Follow her on Twitter at @sophiasvento.