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USC reverses course after SC’s top lawyer says college can’t require masks indoors

·4 min read

The University of South Carolina has backpedaled on its previous plan to require face masks inside campus buildings amid the resurgence of COVID-19 across the state.

On Tuesday, the university said it will not require masks to be worn on campus.

The move follows a letter from S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson that interpreted a legislative proviso — which functions as a one-year law that’s attached to the state budget — to prohibit mask mandates at schools.

While Wilson noted there was some ambiguity in the proviso, he said the intent of the Legislature was to prevent USC from requiring mask usage.

“It is our understanding that Proviso 117.190, while inartfully worded, was intended to prohibit the mandatory wearing of masks,” according to the letter, which Wilson posted to Twitter.

Wilson’s statement was posted Monday night. By Tuesday, USC had reversed its decision to require masks, in order to align with the attorney general’s opinion..

“In light of this...the university will not require anyone to wear face coverings in our buildings, except when in university health care facilities and when utilizing campus public transportation, effective August 3,” USC President Harris Pastides said in a statement. “We continue to strongly encourage the use of face coverings indoors, except in private offices or residence hall rooms or while eating in campus dining facilities.”

Pastides holds both a masters degree and a PhD in epidemiology from Yale University, according to USC’s website.

“During my training in epidemiology, there was a maxim about transmissible diseases like COVID-19 that stated, ‘No one can be safe until everyone is safe,’” Pastides said in the statement, explaining his rationale for initially requiring masks. “Because vaccination cannot be required in South Carolina, I felt that face coverings would go a long way in preventing the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, which is highly contagious, on campus. I did not think that the law precluded this action.”

USC will still be allowed to require mandatory COVID-19 testing and encourage mask wearing and vaccinations, the attorney general’s letter said.

Not everyone agreed with Wilson’s interpretation of the law.

Wilson’s reading of the law is “clearly erroneous,” said University of South Carolina constitutional law professor Thomas Crocker.

“There is no more of a constitutional liberty at stake with a mask mandate than there is with a minimal clothing requirement or a no smoking mandate for campus buildings,” Crocker said. “As we are often told in other contexts, without safety and security there can be no liberty. So liberty is a red herring.”

As for the statute that Wilson cites, Crocker said, “It simply states that a higher education institution cannot use public funds to require that its students have received the COVID-19 vaccination in order to be present at the institution’s facilities without being required to wear a facemask.”

Crocker continued, “The plain statutory meaning is that UofSC cannot require a vaccination in order to be free from a requirement to wear a facemask. It says nothing at all about whether everyone, including those who have a vaccination, could be required to wear a facemask.”

Over the weekend, Pastides had announced everyone on campus will be required to wear masks inside campus buildings. Pastides’ decision came as coronavirus cases, likely driven by the emerging delta variant, have surged throughout the state.

As a result of the increasing cases, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations have more than doubled in the last two weeks, The State reported Monday.

In recent months, a highly contagious variant of the COVID-19 virus, called Delta has been spreading across the nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “To maximize protection from the Delta variant and prevent possibly spreading it to others, wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission.”

The debate on whether to require masks in schools has spawned numerous political fights on something that is supposed to be a health issue. In the Lexington-Richland 5 public school district, the controversial and abrupt resignation of former Superintendent Christina Melton followed heated arguments with the school board over whether students should be required to wear masks in schools.

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