MADISON, Wis. — A small Wisconsin liberal arts college hosting a campaign visit by Vice President Mike Pence told Pence that he and everyone attending his speech inside a campus building must wear a mask and maintain a 6-foot distance between one another, in accordance with the college's protocols for slowing the coronavirus.
The president of Ripon College also distanced the private school from the closed-door event on Friday, saying in an email to the campus community that there was a "mixed response" to the news of Pence's visit and that the school wasn't organizing the event but was merely renting a room to the campaign.
Pence's campaign staff did not immediately respond to questions about whether Pence would wear a mask and abide by the protocols as requested. Pence last month encouraged the wearing of a mask, and he wore one at a Louisiana campaign stop earlier this week before taking it off to give his speech. Pence didn't consistently wear masks earlier this year, drawing criticism following a stop at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
Pence plans to speak Friday at Ripon College, a private school of about 800 students about 90 miles north of Milwaukee, before doing a farm tour and hosting a roundtable discussion in western Wisconsin. The city of Ripon, which touts itself as the birthplace of the Republican Party, is in the Green Bay media market, which is a critical swing area for President Donald Trump in this battleground state.
"I respect that there are people who disagree with my decision," the school's president, Zach Messitte, said in an internal email sent Wednesday to the campus community. "While we all have our own personal political opinions, it bears repeating that Ripon College does not endorse political candidates. If former Vice President Biden, or his soon to be named running mate, were to make a similar request, I would respond the same way."
Messitte said that the college only allowed Pence to rent space at an undisclosed indoor campus location "provided that the college's rules regarding social distancing and masking were followed." Those rules discourage anyone from entering a campus building with symptoms of the virus, including fever, and requires everyone in a campus building to wear a mask and keep 6-feet away from others.
"The Vice President's staff has been made aware of our expectations in this regard and that all attendees, including the Vice President, are to follow them," campus spokesman Ric Damm said Thursday.
Wisconsin has had a spike in COVID-19 cases over the past month, breaking its records for newly confirmed cases in four of the past seven days. Ripon College says on its website that it has not recorded a single case on campus, but it has also canceled all college-sponsored events.
The nation's top health experts have urged people to wear masks and maintain 6 feet apart from others to avoid spreading the virus, but Wisconsin doesn't require people to wear a mask in public. Some local governments, including those of Milwaukee and Dane County, where Madison is located, have enacted requirements for wearing masks while inside.
The Trump campaign said Pence planned to speak about the president's agenda and "the rejection of socialist policies."
The event is not open to the public.
"There will be a limited number of individuals in attendance given the current public health situation," Messitte said. "It is expected that a small number of Ripon faculty, staff and students will be in attendance."
Ripon College is located just blocks from the "Little White Schoolhouse," a national historic landmark that was build in 1850 and is recognized as the birthplace of the Republican Party. It hosted the first meeting of three existing political parties that formed the Republican Party.
Pence's official schedule does not include a planned stop there.
Pence's second event Friday is in Onalaska, about 130 miles (210 kilometers) to the west. He was to tour a dairy farm and then participate in a roundtable discussion about the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, which is the free trade agreement between the countries that took effect July 1 and replaced NAFTA.
Polls have shown Trump trailing Democrat Joe Biden in Wisconsin, a state critical to Trump's reelection. He carried Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016. Polls around this time four years ago also showed Trump trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Pence has been a frequent visitor to the state. This will mark his fifth trip to Wisconsin since January. He was last in Wisconsin just a month ago for his first "faith in America" event and a roundtable discussion on school choice. Pence did not wear a mask at those events, which were in suburban Milwaukee.