Gov. Northam highlights Mason as a model for safe reopening during Fairfax Campus visit

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam praised George Mason University for keeping its coronavirus numbers low during a visit to the Fairfax Campus on Tuesday where he announced a refinancing plan for colleges and universities.

“Mason has taken safety precautions very seriously,” said Northam, speaking through a Mason-branded face covering. “I know that this campus community understands that safety is a shared responsibility.”

Mason President Gregory Washington thanked Northam for his steady leadership during the pandemic. Washington also said it has so far been a great year for Mason.

“Earlier this year, we were worried if we could even open up,” Washington said. “Not only have we opened up, but… our plan for a Safe Return to Campus has far exceeded our expectations.”

Mason recently conducted 2,400 coronavirus tests to uncover an extremely low positivity rate of 0.45%, which Northam called “enviable.”

Mason created safety protocols such as requiring face coverings in public and when around others and practicing physical distancing whenever possible. Students have done an outstanding job in taking the pandemic seriously, Washington said.

Mason is “probably about the safest place you can be … outside of your home,” Washington told Northam.

The refinancing plan Northam announced could save Virginia colleges and universities more than $300 million over the next two years. The plan involves refinancing bonds issued by the Treasury Board of Virginia and the Virginia College Building Authority, which universities use for capital projects.

“The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have tremendous impacts on higher education, including the fiscal health of our colleges and universities,” Northam said. “Families all over the country are taking advantage of record low interest rates to finance their home mortgages, and we want our public institutions to benefit as well.”

If Mason takes advantage of the plan, it could save $58.3 million, according to the Office of the Governor. Higher education institutions would make no principal payments on the affected bonds through fiscal year 2023, and would also see their payment plans extended for two years beyond their current schedule.

After his announcement, Northam, along with Washington and other Mason officials, toured Peterson Hall, stopping at a nursing simulation lab. Washington, Northam and Mason Provost Mark R. Ginsberg talked to students in JoAnn Lee’s social work class. The group also visited the parking garage at the Ángel Cabrera Global Center, where they saw coronavirus testing being conducted.

“You are our ground zero,” Washington told about a dozen Mason employees conducting the testing.

Mason, Virginia’s largest and most diverse public university, grew this fall by about 2% compared with last fall to a total of 38,406 students. This fall, Mason offered a variety of in-person, hybrid and online classes to ensure students receive a quality education without sacrificing health and safety during the pandemic. In addition, all students, staff, faculty and visitors must fill out the Mason COVID Health Check anytime they are on campus.

Communications Manager John Hollis contributed to this report.