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South Carolina attorney general says U of SC can't mandate masks

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The attorney general for South Carolina has informed the University of South Carolina that it cannot require students and faculty to wear face masks in campus buildings.

Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Republican, sent a letter to UofSC interim President Harris Pastides on Monday explaining that the school's guidelines on masking appear to be in violation of rules enacted by the state legislature.

"Please confirm that the University will now not require campus-wide wearing of masks," Wilson wrote to Pastides.

Last week, the university announced that face coverings would be required at all times inside campus buildings. The requirements were put in place after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the South Carolina Department of Health recommended that individuals living in areas with high rates of COVID-19 transmission wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

Richland County, where the university is located, is classified as a high transmission area under the CDC's guidelines.

"Beginning on July 30, the university is requiring face coverings to be worn at all times inside all campus buildings, unless you are in your own residence hall room, private office or you are eating inside campus dining facilities. You are not required to wear a face covering when you are outdoors," Pastides said on Friday.

"Gamecocks, I'm disappointed that these measures are necessary, as we hoped for different circumstances when we came back together. As the pandemic evolves, we will continue to face some challenges, but I'm confident that our Carolina family will do the right thing and take these measures seriously so that we can relax these requirements as soon as conditions allow. To help us achieve this goal, please do your part by getting vaccinated and following all other COVID-19 safety measures," the interim president added.

But the attorney general's letter explains that a proviso of the state budget enacted by the legislature prohibits colleges that receive state funding from implementing mask mandates.

"A public institution of higher learning, including a technical college, may not use any funds appropriated or authorized pursuant to this act 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," the proviso states, according to WLTX-TV.

The university's mask requirement "is likely not consistent with the intent of the Legislature," Wilson wrote, though he acknowledged that the proviso is "inartfully worded."

"Given the legislative intent, we are constrained to construe Proviso 117.190 as prohibiting a mask mandate, such as the University has imposed," Wilson said.

"Accordingly, it is important that the University not only abide by the Provisos but that it protect the constitutional liberty of students, faculty, and staff."

Wilson's letter drew scathing criticism from a Democratic state lawmaker who represents Richland County.

"I disagree with your so-called legal analysis and I am concerned about your decision to needlessly insert yourself into the business of the university and the deleterious public health consequences that will follow," state Sen. Dick Harpootlian (D) wrote in a letter addressed to the attorney general.

"I trust that you have already seen fit to have yourself and your family vaccinated, such that you are not personally concerned that COVID-19 will cause you or your loved one's serious illness or death. That is not the case with many in our State, whose ignorance about the pandemic, vaccines, and masking has only been fueled by reckless cynics," the lawmaker wrote.

"Your so-called legal opinion claiming state law bars the University from enacting a universal mask mandate is ... performative politics, not the serious work of a lawyer representing the interest of our State."

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