UW-Whitewater’s interim chancellor said the university was “not far behind” UW-Madison, which on Wednesday night announced it would move all classes online for two weeks because of rising coronavirus cases.
Less than a week into his current role, Interim Chancellor Greg Cook spoke during a Whitewater City Council meeting Wednesday. Elected officials were considering a proposed ordinance that would have maxed out indoor gatherings at 10 people and outdoor gatherings at 25 (with several exemptions).
The proposal was rejected.
University officials, including Cook and student government leaders, spoke during the meeting and asked for the ordinance to pass because it would give UW-W “teeth” to take action against students who hosted large parties off-campus without proper safety precautions, such as mask-wearing and physical distancing.
“To be honest with you, we’re not far behind,” Cook said after reading to council members the breaking news from UW-Madison. “And it’s going to have an impact on the city.
“This is a last-ditch effort, really, for us—to ask for any tool we can implement to try to squash this increase in the viral spread,” he continued. “Like Mr. (Council President Lynn) Binnie, I actually fear it’s probably too late. We should have done this over a month ago.”
Binnie was the only council member of six at Wednesday’s meeting to vote informally in favor of the ordinance during a “straw poll” of sorts.
Other council members wanted to know what action the university could take on its own instead of making the city enact an ordinance that could have unintended consequences.
But Cook and Artanya Wesley, vice chancellor for student affairs, said they were not able to take much solid action for activities that happen off-campus and aren’t student-organization-sanctioned events, such as those held by fraternities or sororities.
Some council members also said they were hesitant of the mass-gathering ordinance because they weren't aware of other cities with UW System schools that were enacting similar measures, although some had orders from county government.
Before an order came from Gov. Tony Evers, Whitewater’s council on July 21 unanimously voted to require masks in buildings that are open to the public to reduce virus spread.
But what is different in the community now is that UW-Whitewater has started its fall semester with some in-person classes and students living in dorms.
“The city has substantial, legitimate interests in preserving and maintaining the health of Whitewater residents, members of the university community, including students, and guests by stopping the spread of COVID-19,” the proposed ordinance that did not pass stated.
The council instead voted to convene local stakeholders as soon as possible to see what—if anything—they could do to fix the proposed ordinance or what other action the city could take to ease the spread of COVID-19.
Back on Aug. 31, Interim UW System President and former Gov. Tommy Thompson said he felt “very strongly” about opening campuses with their precautionary plans and testing capabilities.
But UW-Madison, the system’s flagship campus, is already showing signs that its plan to bring students back to campus might not be working.
Its chancellor, Rebecca Blank, on Monday canceled all in-person social events and required undergrads to restrict their movements for the next two weeks, The Associated Press reported. Additionally, the Dane County executive on Wednesday asked UW-Madison to send undergrads living on campus home.
Then late Wednesday, UW-Madison announced its decision to move classes online for the next two weeks and direct students living in two of its larger dorms to quarantine.
Cook from UW-W foreshadowed the news coming from UW-Madison before it became widely known when council members were talking about actions the other campus was taking.
But as he alluded to more information coming Thursday, he spoke again during the meeting to share that the news had been broken since he first spoke.
"I happen to have inside knowledge, but if you watch the news tonight and tomorrow, they're going to go much further than that tomorrow," he said earlier in the meeting. "Their numbers are just getting worse. So, it will be even more than that tomorrow."
UW-Whitewater’s COVID-19 dashboard, last updated Wednesday morning, accounted for 44 positive tests among students since Sunday, which is almost as much as the 51 tallied during all of last week.
Walworth County on Wednesday recorded having 1,911 laboratory confirmed cases, five of which were currently hospitalized and 125 that were isolating at home. Thirty-two people have died from the disease in the county that includes part of UW-W’s campus.
A few speakers during the public comment portion accused Cook of “fear-mongering.”
Just before, the interim chancellor spoke solemnly about what ending in-person classes would mean for the university and the city.
Cook said the university, as the “largest entity in town,” takes “a lot of the blame.”
“I feel very badly about all of this,” he said.
Council members and other speakers during the public comment period questioned how well the university communicated safety measures to its students.
While acknowledging the emailed communications and other social media postings shared with the campus community, Cook said there was more they could have done. Still, he added that this was an “unprecedented global crisis that none of us have any experience with.”
But he laid out the grim financial consequences of an uncontrolled virus on the university and community.
“If the university goes all remote in the next few weeks, our students, they disappear. And many of them may not come back,” Cook said. “And you might want to think about your businesses. You might want to think about your rental properties. We’re all in this together.
“We’re going to lose millions and millions of dollars in tuition revenue. It’ll put the university in jeopardy. It’ll put your businesses in jeopardy. It’ll put your rental properties in jeopardy,” he added.
“But if there’s anything we can do to improve our situation before it deteriorates any more, I hope we’ll put our great minds together and figure out what that might be,” he continued.
“I hope it’s not too late.”
Update: This story was updated at 11:35 p.m. Wednesday to include a few more details from the meeting. This story was also updated Thursday to reflect that Artanya Wesley is the permanent holder of her position, not the interim.