Campus Wild

A student wearing a mask rides their bicycle through campus at Montana State University Thursday, July 16, 2020, in Bozeman.

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The Montana University System has decided to require students, employees and visitors to wear face masks indoors and in some outdoor settings to help limit spread of the coronavirus.

The decision announced Thursday by Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian’s office marks a change from the original proposal to “strongly recommend” but not require face coverings on state campuses.

The face-covering requirement also brings the University System in line with Gov. Steve Bullock’s decision Wednesday to require face masks statewide, in response to a rise in new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Montana.

The MUS decision says that as soon as possible, but no later than Aug. 1, all campuses will establish policies and procedures requiring students, employees and visitors to wear face coverings on campus properties. It applies to vendors, suppliers, families and community members.

“CDC guidance suggests that face coverings may help reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely used in public settings,” the MUS announcement said, referring to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

“Face coverings help prevent people who are unaware they have the virus and are either asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic from unknowingly spreading it to others.”

Masks will be required in all indoor spaces, with some exceptions, and in all outdoor spaces where social distancing – keeping 6-feet distance from others – isn’t possible.

The exceptions include when one is alone in an office or enclosed study space, alone in a vehicle, eating or drinking, walking or exercising outdoors and consistently keeping a 6-foot distance from others. Students don’t have to wear face masks in their own dorm rooms, but must put them on in hallways or while visiting other rooms.

People with medical issues can request exceptions from human resources, student affairs or disability services offices.

Each campus will come up with its own compliance rules, which should emphasize education and communication. When students forget their masks, they should just be reminded and handed a paper mask. But people who repeatedly, willfully or aggressively ignore the rules can be asked to leave campus or face other discipline.

The MUS Healthy Fall 2020 task force originally suggested “strongly recommending” face masks. But the group changed last week, and recommended making face masks a requirement, after the Board of Regents discussed concerns and faculty groups across the state raised criticism of the looser stand on face masks.

Christian asked the task force to reconsider, citing the growing number of COVID-19 cases nationally and in Montana, the demographic trend of more young people becoming infected, and new evidence of the effectiveness of face masks.

The University System will accept as face coverings things that cover the mouth and nose, including simple cloth masks, scarves, buffs and bandanas. Single-use paper masks are also acceptable when another option is not available. N95 or surgical masks should be reserved for health care workers and other first-responders.

Plastic face shields are not considered a face covering but may be used with social distancing and when approved by the university instead of a cloth mask as a medical accommodation.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.