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Evers: UW Reopening Was Right Call Despite Virus Surge

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Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers awaits to address the virtual Democratic National Convention at the Wisconsin Center on Aug. 19 in Milwaukee.

University of Wisconsin-Madison officials made the right decision to reopen the campus even though there's been a surge of COVID-19 cases among students and university employees, Gov. Tony Evers said Tuesday.

The state's flagship university reopened Sept. 2 after officials sent students home in March to finish the spring semester online. As of Tuesday, 2,160 students and 31 university workers have tested positive for COVID-19. The university has been forced to suspend in-person classes in lieu of online instruction and quarantine multiple fraternity and sorority houses as well as two large dorms. Campus leaders voted Monday to cancel spring break this coming March.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank has blamed the outbreak on students attending parties, refusing to social distance and refusing to wear masks. She's been intensely criticized for opening the campus for the fall semester after other colleges across the country that opened earlier saw similar outbreaks. She has said students with off-campus leases would have returned to Madison anyway, and in-person instruction is the best method of education.

Evers, a Democrat, defended the decision during a video conference with reporters, saying the reopening came with a massive effort to test students and trace infected students' contacts. Students should also take more responsibility for their behavior, he said. Everyone knew reopening K-12 schools and universities would be “bumpy,” the governor said.

“If we’re waiting for [the coronavirus] to be gone, we could be waiting until next year at this time," Evers said.

Asked if the decision to cancel spring break was premature, Evers said he supports that move, too, signaling again that the nation's struggle with the virus won't be over by spring and students could bring the virus back to Madison if they're given an opportunity to travel.

“It's a wise step,” Evers said.

But the virus continues to spread unchecked across Wisconsin. State health officials reported 1,348 new confirmed cases Tuesday, bringing the total number of infections in Wisconsin since the pandemic began to 91,304. Ten more people died, bringing the death toll to 1,220.

Evers said there's little the state can do to help prevent the spread of the virus after the conservative-leaning state Supreme Court in May struck down his stay-at-home order. Evers issued an executive order on July 29 requiring people to wear masks indoors until Sept. 28, sparking a legal challenge from a conservative law firm. That lawsuit is still pending, but Evers said he's looking for ways to extend the order after it expires later this month.

He added that he's considering other options “for us to do something different at that time," but didn't elaborate.

He also complained that President Donald Trump likely won't be wearing a mask when he appears at a rally Friday at an airport in Mosinee, saying leaders' actions send messages. He didn't mention that his mask order allows speakers at political gatherings to go without one.

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