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University of Wisconsin-Madison restricts student movement after coronavirus surge

On Sunday, little more than a week after classes began, the university reported 149 cases of COVID-19 — the third consecutive day of cases near or over 100.
Image: Image: University of Wisconsin-Madison on July 10, 2014, in Madison, Wisconsin
University of Wisconsin-Madison on July 10, 2014, in Madison, Wisconsin.Jon Elswick / AP file

Following a surge of coronavirus cases, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced Monday that undergraduate students must restrict in-person interactions to “essential activities."

The directive came little more that a week after classes began as the university reported a sharp increase in new COVID-19 cases over the weekend, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard. Out of the 2,037 tests conducted on Sunday, 149 positives, or 7.3 percent, were reported — the third consecutive day of near or over 100 cases.

The testing statistics from the weekend have “not been very good” and threaten the university’s ability to continue in-person instruction, Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a news release on Monday.

The restrictions last for two weeks do not apply to graduate students, faculty, or staff members. The growing number of cases have been particularly pronounced among students living off-campus and “where people did not wear face coverings or practice social distancing,” Blank said.

A widely circulated Instagram video posted on Monday showed students crowded in a narrow hallway, drinking out of red plastic cups, without wearing face coverings or socially distancing.

In response to the viral video, university officials said that the students were engaging in behavior in violation of their rules and policies.

“We believe this incident did not take place within our general University Housing residence halls. We are identifying the students involved and will be pursuing the appropriate disciplinary action,” a university official said.

Essential activities for students under the new restrictions include attending class, getting a COVID-19 test, buying groceries, or going to work, the university said. The university added that all in-person social events and student group meetings, with the exception of in-person and hybrid classes, will be prohibited.

Students can do takeout from union dining facilities, but eating in cafeterias and exercising at the gym will not be allowed for the next two weeks, the university said.

UW-System President Tommy Thompson said Chancellor Blank was taking the necessary precautions to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“Like other universities throughout the nation, UW-Madison is taking aggressive actions to adapt to the circumstances informed by its testing strategies,” Thompson said in a statement on Monday. “We knew there would most likely be an increase in early cases and today’s decision, while inconvenient to students, is necessary.”

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, at least half of Dane County’s single day record COVID-19 cases came from UW-Madison.

“UW-Madison is part of the Madison community and has an impact on all of us,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway told the Journal. “The reality is that students are not confined to campus. We need everyone to take precautions to help keep our community safe.”

Restrictions will be lifted on Monday, Sept. 21, the university said.

Joe Studley contributed.