All University of Oklahoma students, employees, vendors and visitors must wear protective face masks in indoor settings on all three campuses effective immediately, university officials announced Thursday.
The announcement comes amid a statewide spike in new COVID cases and rising hospitalizations, and less than two weeks before OU plans to enter its next reopening phase.
"In Oklahoma in recent days, we have seen a substantial increase in new cases, and as such, we are introducing a new policy that aims to mitigate spread of the virus," wrote Dale Bratzler, the university's chief COVID officer and an infectious diseases expert with OU Medicine, in an email to the OU community. "Please note that with every new policy and practice, we are keeping the safety, health, and welfare of each one of our community members in mind."
According to the new policy, OU employees, students, visitors, contractors and vendors must wear a mask in any indoor setting on OU's Norman, Health Sciences Center and Tulsa campuses.
The policy notes that scarves and bandanas are not acceptable mask substitutes, and that masks, whether disposable or fabric, must cover both the mouth and nose.
OU students will not be required to wear masks in their dorm rooms, but the university is recommending that they at least wear masks when others are present.
Bratzler said in an interview Thursday that the university is still working on a method of enforcement for its mask policy. The university is considering using OU's student code for enforcement, but will definitely expect that students wear masks in common spaces, Bratzler said.
Anyone on the three campuses must also wear a mask in any outdoor setting where social distancing is not possible. The policy requires that passengers and drivers in university vehicles — from on-campus shuttles and buses to police escorts — must also wear masks.
On the Norman campus, the university plans to provide masks for employees and students, and will make them available for campus visitors or vendors at the OU Police Department.
The policy notes that during the second Norman campus re-opening phase, which begins July 6, employees will receive a "welcome back bag" with masks and sanitation supplies. The second phase will bring more employees who can no longer telecommute back to campus.
The new policy asks that students and employees only remove their masks if they are alone in an enclosed space, or if they are completing an activity, like eating or drinking, that requires mask removal.
Bratzler said Thursday that the university will enforce "very explicit rules" for physical distancing and flow in OU's dining areas, where OU will not offer buffet-style service. Staff will serve diners, who will also have access to grab-and-go items.
"We recognize that there's a little bit of risk in any dining hall, because obviously you have to take your mask off to eat or drink, so what we're counting on in those settings is to do as much physical distancing as we possibly can," Bratzler said.
OU is still making decisions on what university gatherings, including sporting events, will look like, but Bratzler said mask wearing may be required at those events.
OU's new policy also contains guidelines for proper mask cleaning and reuse. Employees who cannot comply with the policy for medical reasons can reach out to OU's Human Resources, while students who cannot comply will be directed to OU's Accessibility and Disability Resource Center.
The university will be working to instill the importance of mask wearing and safety into students, and will work with the City of Norman to promote that message, Bratzler said.
The OU COVID chief said he talked with Norman Mayor Breea Clark on Thursday, and Clark shares some of the university's concerns about off-campus student activity.
Clark, who runs the JCPenny Leadership Program in OU's Price College of Business, told The Transcript she approves of the policy, especially considering the age group impacted by the latest COVID-19 spike. Bratzler said Thursday that the recent surge in cases is mainly impacting 18 to 35-year-old Oklahomans.
“I think that policy especially makes sense when you consider we see the increase of cases being in a younger college-age group. I think it’s very reasonable," Clark said Thursday. "As someone who works at OU, we’re all going to get welcome back kits that have masks and sanitizer. I had planned to order additional masks for students in my program. I think it was the right move for sure."
Clark said she is exploring a similar policy in Norman, but is seeking public input first.
"It's really, really important right now, as we see this surge in new cases, that we get everybody wearing a mask in all settings where there are people that come together," Bratzler said.
The full policy, with guidelines for each campus and each group of people that will be on campus, is available at ou.edu/coronavirus/masking-policy.
This story has been updated with comments from Dale Bratzler and Breea Clark. Transcript Staff Writer Mindy Wood contributed to this report.