UT staff, not UTPD, will be responsible for enforcing campus mask, social distancing rules

UT Tower

The UT Austin Tower. (KXAN Photo).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Update: UT Austin requested a correction to a previous story headline which said that UTPD won’t enforce mask and social distancing guidelines on campus unless there is a criminal violation. The university clarified that university staff will absolutely enforce mask and social distancing guidelines, UTPD will be asked to assist if there is a criminal violation.

The UT Austin Police Department clarified to KXAN Tuesday that they won’t be called to immediately respond to health rule violations on campus, such as someone not wearing a face covering or not social distancing, unless there is a criminal violation at hand. UT Austin spokesperson JB Bird told KXAN that these social distancing and masking rules will be enforced on UT students by the Dean of Students office, on faculty by the Office of the Provost, and on staff by university HR.

“We absolutely do enforce rules on social distancing and face mask wearing, we have consequences and we spell those out,” Bird explained, noting that police are never charged with enforcing student conduct rules (for example a police officer would not be tasked with enforcement if a student cheated on an exam).

Bird explained that if there is a visitor on campus who is not a student, faculty or staff member, UTPD will be responsible for enforcing those health guidelines for the visitor. Additionally, UTPD will be asked to step in if a university employee attempts to educate or enforce a COVID-19 guideline and the instance escalates to a criminal matter. Visitors who do not comply with university health rules can be transported off campus, Bird explained.

This was first reported yesterday on Twitter by Daily Texan reporter Andrew Zhang.

The university has made health rules to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 such as mandating the wearing of “recommended protective face masks” while indoors as well as expectations that all campus community members keep social distance. However, UTPD spokesperson Noelle Newton explained that UTPD does not enforce university rules, the department only enforces criminal violations of state law.

Unlike the Austin Police Department, UTPD gets its authority to enforce from state law and is not bound by the rules created by the City of Austin.

Newton went on to explain that COVID-19 health violations will be addressed like other issues on campus — in a tiered approach involving other university employees first and then potentially involving UTPD if things escalate.

“For example, university representatives would make the first contact in situations of university rules violations and request compliance,” Newton explained.

“If the subject doesn’t comply, the university representative can ask the person to leave the premises,” she continued. “If the subject does not comply with university rules and refuses to leave, it becomes a criminal trespass issue. UTPD will respond to acts of criminal trespass.”

Newton added that UTPD officers’ goal is to educate the public and that if officers happen to see groups congregating, “we may educate them by giving them information and ask that they abide by CDC guidelines.”

In preparing to start the fall semester with a mix of online and in-person classes, UT Austin has established requirements including mandating the wearing of recommended protective face mask at all times when inside university buildings except when alone in a private office, eating in a campus dining facility or when students are in their own residence hall rooms.

UT Austin’s guiding principles for protecting against the novel coronavirus state that “significant social distancing is required to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

“We expect all members of the UT community to look out for each other by engaging in social distancing practices and by encouraging everyone else to do the same,” the guiding principles state, noting that UT community members will be updated with more details about requirements and enforcement.

COVID-19 rules for UT Students

The UT Dean of Students, who oversees student conduct, has set up specific rules that students must comply with the protect against the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

Students are required to wear “recommended protective face masks” at all times indoors (with several exceptions as previously noted). When outdoors, these face coverings are encouraged but not required.

The Dean of Students clearly states that “deliberately putting others at risk by coughing on, spitting on, sneezing on, and/or purposefully invading the personal space of others while not wearing a recommended protective face mask” also violate university rules and can result in penalties.

Any students who refuses to follow directions to wear a “recommended protective face mask” will be referred to Student Conduct and Academic Integrity for disciplinary action. Repeat violations of this direction could lead to additional punishment for the student, including suspension from campus.

Additionally, students “deliberately engaging in behavior that threatens the health and safety students, faculty, staff and visitors” will also be referred for student conduct discipline with possible punishments including suspension, depending on how sever the incident is.

During class, both instructors and students are required to wear face coverings, the university says. If a student refuses to wear a face covering in class, they will be asked to leave or put their face covering back on.

If the student still refuses to wear a face mask, the instructor may cancel class and dock the student’s participation grade for the day they refuse to wear a face mask.

The university also says that students, faculty staff, and visitors must keep six feet distance from one another at all times or face disciplinary action.

The office of the Dean of Students has already set up an online system where community members can report violations made by students. The office wrote that it anticipates a high volume of reports made on this platform and urges people filing reports to make them as specific and complete as possible. Due to federal privacy laws, the university notes, people who file reports may not be notified of what happened as a result of the report about a student’s behavior.

State COVID-19 rules

The latest executive order from Texas Governor Greg Abbott requires face coverings except in counties that have opted out. The order states that verbal or written warning would happen for a first-time violation and each subsequent violation would merit a $250 fine. Law enforcement can and should enforce this order, the governor said, however, no law enforcement may detain, arrest, or jail people who violate this order (though law enforcement may act to enforce trespassing laws).

Another order this summer from Governor Abbott prohibits outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people with certain exceptions. Local officials can enforce this executive order and other restrictions consistent with it, the order says, so long as people are not put in jail for violating the order.

City of Austin COVID-19 rules

The current order in place by city of Austin prohibits gatherings of groups of more than 10 people who do not live in the same household.

While local governments in Texas cannot require mask-wearing outright, Governor Abbott has clarified that local governments are allowed to require businesses to require employees and customers to wear face coverings. Since this clarification from the governor, the city of Austin has implemented a requirement that businesses require employees and customers to wear face coverings in most cases. Violations of this order are a criminal offense in the City of Austin which Austin Police, Austin Code Department, and the office of the Austin Fire Marshal are authorized to enforce. Any individual found to be in violation of the mask requirement will be given a warning on the first offense and a $250 fine for each subsequent violation.

Further orders from Austin’s Health Authority mean that those over the age of 10 not wearing masks in public can be subject to a fine of up to $2,000. Additional order from the Health Authority states that sites, including businesses, that don’t comply with state and local COVID-19 orders to be declared a “nuisance” and face possible civil penalties.

Many UT Austin community members live off-campus in the City of Austin, so these city rules would apply in places like West Campus.

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