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Texas' Biggest Public Universities Will Require Masks This Fall. Enforcement Will Be A Challenge.

A sign in the University of Texas at Austin's Student Services Building shows information on how to prevent the spread of airborne illnesses.
A sign in the University of Texas at Austin's Student Services Building shows information on how to prevent the spread of airborne illnesses.

Determined to see students return to college in the fall, some of Texas' biggest universities are requiring face masks as a safeguard against the coronavirus. But enforcing those policies could prove difficult for institutions with tens of thousands of students and sprawling campuses.

Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas State University officials have all announced that masks will be non-negotiable next semester. Each campus will require masks in buildings other than private offices or rooms and will encourage masks outdoors when social distancing is difficult.

Public health experts, following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have long advised that wearing face masks is the best way to prevent transmission when social distancing isn’t feasible. But mask policies have roused naysayers across Texas, who argue that enforcement in the form of fines or jail time is a violation of their rights.

State leaders, originally loath to publicly endorse mask policies, have recently been urging mask use as case counts and hospitalizations continue to hit record highs. Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott said local officials could require businesses to mandate masks after he previously banned local governments from requiring individuals to wear them.

But along with anti-mask sentiment, state officials are worried that young Texans are accelerating the spread of COVID-19. They point to counties that have seen surges in case counts among people ages 20 to 29. In Hays County, home of Texas State, people in their 20s accounted for 50.7% of all the cases last week.

In Austin, which has a sizable university population, 27% of all cases in the city have been among people ages 20-29 — the largest of any age demographic, according to Austin Public Health data.

Now, as universities anticipate housing tens of thousands of students — many of them in their 20s — they are also following the state’s lead in relying on cooperation with wearing masks to ensure safety. When it comes to mask enforcement, campus leaders say they are primarily hoping students and faculty do the right thing, though they have stronger tools in their arsenal if needed.

At A&M, officials are largely relying on social pressure and public disapproval of people without masks, said Chief Compliance Officer Kevin McGinniss. As a last resort, students can opt out of group activities where masks are not self-enforced, and a professor might choose not to attend a class if people are ignoring the guidance, McGinniss said.

But A&M campus police will not be called on to mediate mask disputes, McGinniss said.

If a situation gets unruly or too many people begin to forgo masks, “we will reevaluate how we enforce,” McGinniss said. “But it’s not like our police are going to go around and arrest people for not cooperating.”

Those who repeatedly refuse to wear masks, however, will be subject to either the employee or student disciplinary process — “up to and including dismissal,” McGinnis said, though he said he’s hoping it will never come to that.

At Texas State, noncompliance with face covering requirements will also be handled through existing employee discipline, faculty discipline and student judicial processes, according to a campus COVID-19 website.

“We understand some people may disapprove of wearing a mask,” the website reads. “Requiring students to wear face covering in a campus building, when social distancing is not possible, is a narrowly tailored and minimally intrusive mechanism, which is justified by the significance of the university’s interest in helping to stop the spread of a highly contagious and deadly virus.”

While UT-Austin officials denied repeated requests for interviews on how they would enforce their mandatory mask policies, Art Markman, head of the university’s fall planning committee, said in an interview with The Daily Texan that the campus police department would get involved if someone refused to wear a mask inside a campus building. In an email to the Tribune, Markman said all final policy details will be released June 30.

Students like Diana Jasso, a public health junior at A&M, are ready to get back to class after last semester’s premature end. She said wearing a mask is a small price to pay for the benefits of living on campus.

But she’s concerned not everyone at her university will think the same way.

A recent trip to the Target near campus was enlightening: Out of nearly 30 college-age people in line, Jasso and her friends were the only four wearing masks, she said. As someone with asthma, she said she worries that her two in-person classes — each with at least 100 people — will quickly become breeding grounds for the virus if students get tired of wearing masks.

“I’ve seen Aggies saying it’s a violation of their personal rights,” Jasso said. “I can maybe understand where they’re coming from … but come on. Right now, health is more important.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the extent of universities’ power to punish violators on campus. But McGinnis said the decision at A&M was based on public health guidance and in accordance with the state.

“We are following the state’s lead and doing everything we can to open classes in the fall, but they give us leeway in determining how that’s going to look,” McGinnis said.

Disclosure: Texas State University, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Raga Justin is a reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune and a junior at the University of Texas. Raga was a fall reporting intern in the Houston Chronicle’s Austin bureau, and she has worked as a news desk editor and city and state reporter for The Daily Texan. She’s also a journalism coach for the Moody College of Communication’s writing program and the board chair of media and public relations for the Indian Students Association.