The University of Wisconsin-Madison's chancellor on Monday pushed back against repeated calls from Dane County's top leaders to close the campus to slow COVID-19, saying he needs to stop wishing students were gone and crack down on off-campus gatherings.
Rebecca Blank's remarks are the latest in an escalating war of words with Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, who has complained that the rash of student infections since campus opened several weeks ago are skewing the county's case numbers upward.
Parisi's administration has enacted some of the toughest COVID-19 restrictions in the state. He has repeatedly demanded the campus shut down. On Sunday he issued a statement accusing UW leaders of accepting that people are going to get sick and spread the disease, resulting in people suffering long-term heart ailments.
“This ... is entirely unacceptable when individuals have the ability to make decisions right now to prevent this from continuing,” he said. “The time to act is now.”
Blank fired back Monday with her own statement, asserting that students are a key part of Madison's economy and thousands of students would stay here in off-campus housing even if the university closed anyway.
“You can’t simply wish them away, nor should you," Blank said. “This is where students live, where they work, where they vote and their presence supports hundreds of local businesses and the Dane County economy.”
She pointed out that the university is testing thousands of students, has quarantined two dorms and has gone to online instruction for two weeks and the number of cases at UW-Madison has been declining. University data showed 46 positive tests on Sunday, down from a high of 290 on Sept. 9.
But the county is undermining the university’s efforts to control the disease by failing to control gatherings at off-campus bars and parties, the chancellor said.
“You don’t need to look hard on social media to find a photo of long lines outside downtown bars or parties in large apartment buildings, or other places where 18- to 24-year-olds are gathering,” she said. “Until those agencies with enforcement authority take additional action, we shouldn’t expect to see a rapid decline in cases in Dane County.”
Faced with dwindling revenue after campuses closed this past spring, UW System President Tommy Thompson decided to reopen institutions across the state even though college openings around the country have led to outbreaks. The story has been the same in Wisconsin; of the 102,498 confirmed cases in the state, 2,684 have been UW-Madison students, with most of those cases confirmed since the start of August. Hundreds more students have been infected at the system's regional campuses.
Parisi is a former Democratic state lawmaker. His county administration has already imposed its own mask mandate on top of one Gov. Tony Evers has implemented and outlawed high school football and volleyball games.
His administration also blocked all county schools, both public and private, from offering in-person instruction to children in grades 3-12 unless case numbers decrease dramatically. Middle school and high school students, for example, can't return to in-person class until the county averages no more than 19 cases a day for four weeks straight.
The state Supreme Court blocked the order earlier this month as it considers a lawsuit brought by a group of private schools and the students' parents.