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Top prosecutor: Univ of South Carolina can’t require masks

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The University of South Carolina can’t lawfully require students and staff to wear face coverings on campus this fall, despite increasing cases of coronavirus, thanks to recent legislative action, according to the state’s top prosecutor.
Last week, university officials announced that they would require “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.”
That decision, interim President Harris Pastides wrote, was in accordance with current recommendations from public health officials. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated guidance recommending indoor mask use in parts of the U.S. where the delta variant of the coronavirus is fueling infection surges, as well as at schools nationwide, regardless of vaccination status.
“Gamecocks, I’m disappointed that these measures are necessary,” Pastides wrote, also urging, but not requiring, students to get vaccinated before returning to campus.
In a letter sent Monday to Pastides and obtained by The Associated Press, state Attorney General Alan Wilson wrote that the university’s mask mandate “is likely not consistent with the intent of the Legislature.”
Pastides said Tuesday that the university will change course because of Wilson’s opinion and “will not require anyone to wear face coverings in our buildings, except when in university health care facilities and when utilizing campus public transportation,” though wearing masks indoors is still encouraged.
The debate over what to do with masks in schools across South Carolina has been simmering since the end of the past academic year, as officials debated whether schools should drop face covering mandates before the summer break, citing declining virus rates amid the rollout of several vaccines.
A budget proviso that went into effect July 1 prohibits the state’s pubic colleges, universities and school districts from using any appropriated funds to institute mask requirements.
The measure was backed by Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who earlier this year called it “the height of ridiculosity” for a school district to require a mask over any parent’s wishes that their child go without one.
The proviso, wrote Wilson, a fellow Republican, “while inartfully worded, was intended to prohibit the mandatory wearing of masks.”
Last week, state K-12 education officials said they couldn’t follow the updated CDC guidance on masks because of the proviso. Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics also recommended that all students and staff should wear face coverings during the coming school year.
Vaccination rates in South Carolina have been among the lowest in the country, with just under 45% of eligible residents fully dosed, according to data updated Saturday by state health officials.
New COVID-19 cases have been on the rise, with the average number doubling in the past two weeks to about 400 cases a day amid no signs of slowing down, according to state health officials.
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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.

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