Last week, the presidents of Arizona’s three public universities announced they’d require facemasks in classrooms and other indoor spaces as COVID-19 infections surge in the state. It comes amid a heated debate about mask mandates in Arizona schools and follows an executive order by Governor Doug Ducey and a new state law that attempts to prohibit vaccine and mask mandates. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius spoke with Northern Arizona University President José Luis Cruz Rivera about his decision to require masks and the university’s ongoing effort to limit the spread of COVID.
Ryan Heinsius: What drove this decision to make this a requirement?
President José Luis Cruz Rivera: We have expanded the number of areas within our campus where masks will be required. We are a mask-friendly campus. We are strongly encouraging everyone to wear masks indoor, and now given the realities on the ground and our commitment to ensuring that we have a vibrant, safe environment for learning and teaching in the fall, we have also added requirements for face coverings in those places, classrooms included, where we cannot ensure physical distancing.
RH: By mandating masks, is NAU, along with U of A and ASU, violating Governor Ducey’s executive order and state law?
JLCR: Well, the executive order and state law calls for there to be no differentiation between those that are vaccinated and unvaccinated. The requirement that we have put in place is for everyone regardless of their vaccination status in settings where there cannot be physical distancing to wear a mask.
RH: Are you concerned that perhaps there could be a legal fallout at the state level for going against what at least appears to be the will of the governor and lawmakers?
JLCR: We’ve had several conversations where we have looked at the science and looked at the legal framework upon which we must make decisions and we feel confident that we are moving in the right direction.
RH: As a brand new president, how do you personally feel about one of your first more high-profile decisions being somewhat controversial, wading into the mask debate, which obviously in Arizona and several other states has been a pretty heated topic lately?
JLCR: Well, I don’t see it in any particular way as being problematic or controversial. We have a responsibility to ensure that we provide a vibrant and safe environment for our campus community to teach, to learn, to engage, to create. And we have a responsibility to do that with knowledge of public health conditions and we have a responsibility to do that within the legal framework. And having taken into account all of those factors we have made some decisions that I am sure will solve as well.
RH: If this current COVID surge continues to worsen, what other tools are at NAU’s disposal to try to limit the spread on campus. Would NAU, would you consider mandating vaccines for students and staff for instance?
JLCR: Well, as I said earlier we have to work within the legal framework. Vaccines are not on the table right now but we do have a responsibility and ability to educate and to inform and we will continue to do that and facilitate. At the NAU Fieldhouse anyone can walk in, choose the vaccine of their preference and walk out fully vaccinated within minutes and so we will continue to do that. We are also launching a random mitigation testing program that will allow us to keep close tabs on the level of transmission within our campus and that would then lead to additional policy decisions that we could make regarding distancing, regarding whether or not we need to pivot as we have in the past to more online and virtual work. So everything is on the table. What I feel really good about is that we have learned so much during the last 18 months about how to pivot, about how to sense and respond to the realities on the ground and how to make that sure we keep our community safe. And so, I’m very confident about the fall semester that’s ahead of us and know that with the support of the community that we will be successful.