Reusable masks with a bobcat, the mascot for Montana State University, for sale at the MSU bookstore on Thursday, August 5, 2021.

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Montana State University issued a stronger message urging people on campus to wear masks indoors but again stopped short of mandating face coverings ahead of the Aug. 25 start to the semester.

MSU President Waded Cruzado in a letter sent to students, parents, faculty and staff on Tuesday evening urged them to voluntarily wear masks “because it is needed — not because it is mandated or required.”

At the start of August, Cruzado had asked both vaccinated and unvaccinated people to wear masks indoors on campus. While mask use is still ultimately voluntary, Cruzado outlines in the updated recommendation more detailed guidelines and a more urgent plea to the MSU community.

“Can we get this done? Can we wear face masks indoors without being mandated to do it because we understand it is important for us to have a good semester on campus?” Cruzado wrote.

MSU spokesman Michael Becker said the letter was a “call to action” for the MSU community to recognize that COVID-19, specifically the delta variant, poses a threat to the on-campus experience students and staff want.

Since wearing masks indoors isn’t required, MSU won’t have any enforcement component related to the recent guidelines. When asked if people will comply with the recommendations without it being required or enforced, Becker said the university was hopeful that the Bobcat community could act together without a mandated mask policy.

“What we’re trying to do here is to get the members of our community to recognize the pertinent need for mask wearing in accordance with CDC guidelines and to abide by that recommendation without the need for a mandate, not because its required of them but because it's important,” Becker said.

In the letter, Cruzado said she was trying to avoid the terms requirement and mandate “because they foment dissension and division…. In my conversations with students, faculty and staff, I have heard that pandemic-related mandates are odious, that monitoring for compliance breeds controlling attitudes and contempt.”

But Cruzado warned if there was a “rampant disregard for the need to wear face masks” or if the COVID-19 hospitalizations in Gallatin County increased, “MSU will revert to mandating face masks for every faculty, student and staff member.”

The university felt it was a good time for the call to action as cases in the state and county continue to rise, Becker said. Gallatin County is in the high transmission rate according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's classification. The letter provides guidelines during this time to help people decide when to wear a mask, he said.

“We would like people to do these things because they see a need to do these things,” he said. “It’s how Bobcats take care of each other but should the need arise for a mandate, it could be in the cards.”

The guidelines say wearing masks outside is optional; masks wouldn’t be needed if social distancing could be maintained in rooms with 10 or fewer people; if an instructor is at least 6 feet away from students, a mask is recommended but not needed; and if exercising in the fitness center, a mask is also recommended but not needed.

Becker said faculty members would not be allowed to go beyond the guidelines and require masks of their students in classes.

Bradford Watson, chair of MSU Faculty Senate, said in an email that many of the faculty he’s spoken with are relieved that a stronger message on the importance of masks was sent. But many faculty members would still like to see a mask requirement across the university system.

“We still believe that a system-wide enforceable mask mandate from the Montana Board of Regents is the clearest and most effective path to ensure the health of students, staff and faculty, rather than relying on a patchwork approach on each of the campuses,” Watson wrote.

Watson said the MSU community did “a great job of following the COVID guidelines last year to keep everyone safe” and faculty members were hopeful that would be the case for the fall semester.

During Monday’s Board of Regents meeting, Watson, who was speaking on behalf of the Montana University System Faculty Association Representatives, provided public comment urging the regents to take action on a mask requirement across the university system.

At that time, Watson said faculty members from campuses in the university system have expressed “grave concerns” and urged the board to “require face coverings for all indoor spaces for all campuses this fall for the safety of everyone.”

Associated Students of MSU President Norris Blossom said having in-person classes is a priority for students, who are excited to return to campus. He said there’s a diverse range of reactions from students following the updated guidelines.

“President Cruzado’s letter emphasizes the team spirit that we must exhibit to keep our Bobcat community safe,” he said. “Students, faculty and staff shouldn’t be acting in a certain way because it is mandated, but rather because it is the action that will help our whole community.”

In her letter, Cruzado asked people to continue washing hands frequently, social distance when possible, stay home if they’re sick and to receive a free COVID-19 vaccine from University Health Partners. Symptomatic students can also access free COVID-19 testing on campus.

Cruzado acknowledged that “we are all tired of wearing face masks” but said people don’t want to risk getting sick or having others get sick.

“I believe each of us is capable of understanding this and agreeing to wear face masks in these circumstances because we are committed to acting as responsible adults in a civic society,” she wrote.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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