Loosening restrictions and the warmer weather are beginning to draw students outside where experts say gathering is safer — but still not risk free.

Students are ready to take advantage of the warm spring weather and the CDC verified gathering outside as the notably safer option, but the risk of increasing COVID-19 cases is largely dependent on how students chose to gather.

University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health Professor Oguzhan Alagoz spoke on students gathering outdoors.

 “Yes, people are going to spend more time outdoors, which is great. But are they going to wear masks or are they going to let their guard down?” Alagoz said. “And that’s where I think it’s a big unknown.”

The most recent Dane County emergency order shows even outside, masks use and social distancing play a key role in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. 

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The UW policy, which went into effect March 8, increases campus event capacity to allow 50 people indoors or 150 people outdoors, but attendees still must wear a face covering, participate in the campus testing program, physically distance and not eat or drink at events.

Associate Professor and Faculty Director in the School of Medicine and Public Health Ajay Sethi said it was important for people to pay attention to the guidelines which come with gatherings.

“There’s definitely an asterisk next to [allowing gatherings],” Sethi said.

Alagoz and Sethi cautioned against perceiving the loosening restrictions or the chance to gather outside as a green light. According to Sethi, 60-70% of the local population still doesn’t have immunity, meaning a large portion of the population is still vulnerable to the virus.

These experts are hoping the spike in cases campus experienced last fall will be avoided through continued use of preventative measures which weren’t in place last November. Vaccines and lower case rates create conditions less conducive to an increase in cases, they said.

“There aren’t as many cases that are circulating in the community as compared to November, when we were at a high and there was no vaccine,” Sethi said. “It’s technically safer for people to gather today versus three months ago.”

As mentioned, vaccines are an important mitigating factor. President Biden recently announced he anticipates having enough vaccine doses for every adult by the end of May.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services said it will probably be several months before the vaccine is widely available. Most students will get the vaccine in later rounds of eligibility, as more doses become available. Experts say the willingness to receive the vaccine is on the rise.

Chair of the Department of Life Sciences and Communication and UW professor Dominique Brossard mentioned many Americans are now more comfortable getting vaccinated.

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“Hesitancy is getting lower, so now we have more than 70% of Americans that say that they would be willing to be vaccinated; so this is good news,” Brossard said.

Alagoz said the vaccine is also sufficiently effective at preventing known variants from resulting in serious illness. This applies to the more contagious UK variant, B.1.1.7, located in Dane County by Wisconsin DHS and its lab partners.

Some students have already received the vaccine because of jobs or other circumstances making them eligible in earlier rounds. Increasing the number of vaccinated students will help reduce hospitalizations and deaths in Madison.

Brossard said students need to be encouraged to get vaccinated in order to protect the people around them and the overall Madison community.

The CDC recently announced two weeks after being fully vaccinated people can visit mask-less and indoors with other vaccinated people or with low risk unvaccinated people from a single house. They also do not have to quarantine after exposure if they are asymptomatic.

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Some students, including UW Junior Megan Eidson, are hopeful their peers will refrain from risky behavior so we can return to normal as soon as possible.

“I think there will be a mixed response from the student population … most of the student population is over the continued regulation so I think they’ll want to do whatever is safest right now in order to get it over with,” Eidson said.

A March 3 school-wide email from the Office of the Chancellor encouraged students to opt for activities like bonfires, picnics, yoga and hiking and discouraged drinking games, potlucks, parties and team games or sports.

Alagoz said though it’s been difficult, an end may be in sight.

“It has been very hard, but finally I see the light at the end of the tunnel and we just need to hang on a little more,” Alagoz said.