US university president who attended mask-free Trump event under fire

SOUTH BEND, UNITED STATES (AFP) – The University of Notre Dame, one of America’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning, is bullish on mask-wearing and social distancing to fight the coronavirus.

Now, its president, the Reverend John Jenkins, is under fire after attending a notorious White House event with President Donald Trump at which both precautions were largely ignored – and testing positive for Covid-19.

Some students called for Reverend Jenkins’ resignation but he survived. Reverend Jenkins is big on coronavirus safety – back in August, after students returned to class and there seemed to be a spike in Covid cases, he did not hesitate to suspend in-person classes for two weeks.

Reverend Jenkins says he is sorry for not wearing a mask at a Sept 26 ceremony at the Rose Garden at which Mr Trump introduced Judge Amy Coney Barrett, his nominee to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. She is a Notre Dame graduate and law professor.

That event, at which people sat close together and few wore masks, has come under close scrutiny because at least seven who were in attendance have now tested positive for Covid.

They include Mr Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, two Republican US senators, the White House press secretary and a Trump campaign adviser.

“I regret my error of judgment in not wearing a mask during the ceremony and by shaking hands with a number of people in the Rose Garden,” Reverend Jenkins wrote in a letter to students, faculty and staff at the Indiana university.

“I failed to lead by example, at a time when I’ve asked everyone else in the Notre Dame community to do so.”

He said he has mild symptoms and would be working from home. The White House has said Judge Barrett tested negative.

Students say they are upset with the university president and see a double standard in his behaviour.

Around campus in this city about a 90-minute drive from Chicago, signs are posted that say “Here we wear masks everywhere” and “here we practise physical distancing”.

On a sunny and unseasonably warm day this week, students wore masks as they went from class to class or sat outside reading.

“It’s frustrating because my sister, who is a freshman, can’t come visit me in my dorm,” Ms Julia Tihansky, a junior from Pennsylvania studying chemical engineering, said.

She said no students from outside her residence hall are allowed in as part of the school’s safety rules related to coronavirus.

‘A POOR MOVE’

Sitting outside eating lunch in a grassy area between the football stadium and the Hesburgh Library, which boasts a giant mural called “Touchdown Jesus”, Mr Michael Lee, a junior biology major from Boston, said Reverend Jenkins made a poor decision.

“It was a poor move, regardless of how much testing they did or said they did beforehand. Being the face of the university, he should have abided by the guidelines he set for students and staff,” Mr Lee said.

Around 200 students signed a petition last week asking the student senate to call for Reverend Jenkins’ resignation, but the senate voted against the measure.

As with many US universities, the rules at Notre Dame include wearing masks when on campus and sitting socially distant in assigned seats during class – many have been moved from classrooms to auditoriums to accommodate this.

Besides the signs reminding students and staff to wear masks and keep apart, hand sanitiser stations have been set up in several spots both inside and outside of campus buildings.

The university’s online coronavirus dashboard says 777 people at the 12,000 student university had tested positive for Covid-19 as of Sunday.

Of those, 736 have recovered and 41 are considered active cases.

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