WHITEWATER — The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater on Friday moved to restrict indoor and outdoor gatherings on campus to no more than 10 people “for the foreseeable future,” a move brought on by an increase in COVID-19 cases “both locally and statewide.”

Last week through Friday, 115 students tested positive for COVID-19, according

to the university’s dashboard. The total weekly figure Thursday was 69, and on Wednesday it was 44. The prior week, there were 51 cases.

The new gathering rule affects on-campus events. UW-Whitewater events that previously were granted exemptions will need to reapply.

On Wednesday night, Interim Chancellor Greg Cook and other university and student officials had asked the Whitewater Common Council to adopt its own mass-gathering ordinance, which they said would help enforcement of off-campus parties.

Cook also said UW-Whitewater was “not far behind” UW-Madison, which announced its move to have all classes be virtual for two weeks due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

On Sunday, UW-La Crosse announced it was moving to online classes for two weeks.

Cook said the university needed help finding “teeth” in its action against students who were holding large parties on private property.

Otherwise, he said, the university, rental properties and local businesses will be “in jeopardy” if UW-Whitewater has to hold all classes virtually.

“These numbers are skyrocketing, and they’re becoming very alarming,” Cook said Wednesday. “We need to do everything we can to hold students accountable.”

The council declined to adopt the ordinance, questioning what other options the university had in its toolbox. Some council members and public speakers feared unintended consequences from the ordinance.

Meanwhile, University of Wisconsin System Interim President Tommy Thompson said at a town hall Thursday that if UW-Whitewater students don’t wear masks or practice social distancing, it’s possible “we then would not be able to finish the semester.”

But Thompson added he did not think that would happen in Whitewater, striking a tone sharply different from what Cook told the council Wednesday night.

“We want you to have a tremendous experience, students. We also want you to understand that this is a very serious time with the coronavirus,” Thompson said. “And if you, of course, do not wear your masks, if you don’t socially distance yourself, there is the possibility that, of course, we then would not be able to finish the semester.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen on Whitewater’s campus because everybody is dedicated the same way I am — to make sure that the students are safe and that the teachers, the professors and all the instructors are able to make sure that they can do their job,” he continued.

Thompson gave an uplifting introduction to UW-Whitewater’s virtual town hall event when he also thanked Cook for opening the campus, which is holding some in-person classes.

Cook is in the position for Dwight Watson, who is on paid leave for an investigation into an unspecified complaint.

Thursday’s hour-long town hall was a chance for Cook and the rest of the chancellor’s cabinet to respond to questions, including on these topics:

• Watson’s investigation: Cook said “we don’t know at this time what the timeline will be,” regarding when others will learn more about Watson’s investigation or its outcome.

He asked for everyone to avoid speculation because investigations into a chancellor, “could be (about) anything under the sun.”

• COVID-19 testing for university employees: When asked why the university was providing testing for students and not employees, Cook said that came down to requirements within the funding UW-Whitewater received. He said the university provides health insurance to employees, and they should seek testing through their medical providers.

• No threshold: Cook said there is no one number that is a marker for the university to automatically shut down. He said they rely on a “holistic” analysis of data, such as case counts, where cases are clustered and the capacity of isolation spaces.

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