Between packed lecture halls, murmurs of friends isolating due to exposure and even a few classes shifting back to online instruction, it is clear that the pandemic is far from over.
To help stop the spread of the COVID-19, and to ease the fears of students with varying comfort levels, on Aug. 5, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s mask mandate went into effect. “The recent arrival in the U.S. of the more infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 has led to a steep rise in cases across the country, including here in Wisconsin,” a statement from the university read.
However, for some students, this mask mandate is viewed as a breach of personal liberties.
Enter "Unmask UW", an organization founded by second-year student Lane Whitten. According to Whitten, the organization has 30 members who prefer to remain anonymous, and it was kickstarted on Aug. 3, right after UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced the current mask mandate.
Unmask UW’s mission revolves around questioning two concepts: the legality and the necessity of the mask mandate.
Mask mandates have been contested in Wisconsin, with the Supreme Court overruling Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mask mandate in March. While Wisconsin does not currently have a statewide mask mandate, Dane County does. Though in the eyes of Unmask UW’s members, UW-Madison does not reserve the right to declare a mask mandate separate from Dane County’s.
“The university needs legislative approval to issue COVID restrictions,” Whitten said. “It is not the right nor responsibility of the University of Wisconsin administrators to make health decisions for students and staff.”
Aside from the legality issue, the members of Unmask UW also question the necessity of the mask mandate. As of Sept. 29, 92.7% of students and 93.8% of employees are fully vaccinated at UW-Madison, a statistic that propels Unmask UW’s belief that UW-Madison’s high vaccination rate alone is enough protection from the coronavirus.
“Students and vaccinated people as a whole are at a very small risk of getting and being hospitalized from COVID-19,” Whitten said.
However, some students who are concerned about their immunocompromised peers have brought up counterpoints to Unmask UW’s belief that masks are unnecessary.
“I definitely don’t enjoy having to wear a mask all the time, but I think the minor inconvenience is worth it to protect immunocompromised and other high-risk people from COVID-19,” first-year Ryan Okushi said.
In addition to worrying about higher-risk students, many other students have expressed concern for older faculty. “A mask mandate is the best plan as of right now for protecting our community, especially our professors,” first-year Kate Sarvady said.
During its first two months as an organization, Unmask UW has become somewhat of a point of division among students, with some referring to the founders as “selfish.”
“If they want to get sick, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be putting other people in danger,” first-year Brian Lin said.
Despite the backlash the organization has received — both through passionate comments left on Instagram and through messages from UW-Madison itself — its members continue to promote their beliefs through the organization’s Instagram account and its blog.
Unmask UW was originally founded as an Instagram page, but the organization has begun to step into the streets. The group’s first protest took place on Sept. 3, and they are planning another protest for Oct. 1.
“We had roughly 30 people at the protest, including Orlando Owens, who is running for state treasurer,” Whitten said. “Although our numbers were smaller than we hoped, we got a chance to speak to multiple news channels and get more exposure for our organization.”
With cases seemingly dipping one week and rising the next, the future of the pandemic is unsteady, and against Unmask UW’s wishes, UW-Madison shows no signs of easing up on COVID-19 restrictions. Dane County’s own mask mandate is set to expire on Oct. 8, although the mandate may be renewed after that.
Despite this, Unmask UW refuses to step down, and its members plan on continuing their mission to dismantle the mask mandate.
“We hope to have a discussion in the future with university administrators and the leaders of the legislature about why the university should no longer impose COVID restrictions,” Whitten said.