COVID-19 Roundup: Power Struggles Over Mask Mandates

As a growing number of colleges reinstate mask mandates, colleges and lawmakers in some states square off. University of South Carolina drops mask requirement following state attorney general opinion.

August 4, 2021

The University of South Carolina has backed off a mandatory face-masking policy for all students and employees announced last week after the state attorney general issued an opinion saying a mask requirement was not consistent with the intent of a state law prohibiting such mandates.

The announcement on Tuesday came one day after the American College Health Association and other higher education groups issued a statement condemning as “dangerous” the increasing number of state-level policies restricting colleges from requiring vaccines or adopting other public health measures, including mask mandates or compulsory COVID testing. The statement noted that many of the restrictions “directly contradict” guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which last week recommended that everyone living in areas of substantial or high transmission of COVID-19 wear masks while in public indoor spaces regardless of their vaccination status.

The university’s reversal was prompted by an opinion from South Carolina attorney general Alan Wilson interpreting a state law barring colleges that receive state funding from requiring people to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to come on campus "without being required to wear a face mask."

Wilson wrote that the provision was “ambiguous, to be sure” and could be reasonably interpreted as intended “to prohibit discrimination by requiring masks for the unvaccinated.” Under such an interpretation, Wilson wrote, a uniform face-masking requirement such as the one South Carolina announced last week would not be in violation.

“Such a policy, however, is likely not consistent with the intent of the Legislature. It is our understanding that Proviso 117.190, while inartfully worded, was intended to prohibit the mandatory wearing of masks,” Wilson wrote.

Interim South Carolina president Harris Pastides, an epidemiologist by training, said the university would comply with the attorney general’s opinion. But he defended the decision to introduce the mandate on public health grounds in a universitywide message.

"Last week, I authorized face coverings for our university community because my top priority is the safety and health of our students, faculty and staff,” Pastides wrote. “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.’ I also remember the eradication of smallpox in 1980 through vaccination, as well as the effective vaccine control of polio, measles, mumps, rubella and other serious illnesses when I was a child. There were some side effects to the vaccines, as there are with every medication, but without doubt vaccines have saved millions of lives. 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.”

Pastides said in light of Wilson’s opinion, “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. 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.”

In Wisconsin, a Republican-controlled legislative committee passed a resolution Tuesday requiring University of Wisconsin campuses to get the committee’s approval for mandatory COVID-19 vaccination, masking or testing policies, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Under the measure, the UW system will have to submit COVID-19 policies to the committee within 30 days. The committee will then have the ability to vote to suspend all or parts of the policies. Tony Evers, the state’s Democratic governor, does not have the ability to veto the committee’s actions.

The measure passed 6 to 4 on party lines, with the six Republicans on the committee in favor and the four Democrats against. Republicans on the committee believe policies like a new mask mandate announced at the University of Wisconsin Madison campus Tuesday will now need to go before the committee for review within 30 days.

UW system president Tommy Thompson, a former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary and former Republican governor of Wisconsin, said in a statement prior to the resolution’s passage that “the biggest threat to in-person classes this fall would be actions that strip the UW System of the tools it has so successfully used to date to address outbreaks and reduce the spread of COVID-19. Just as we have this past year, the UW System will continue to use its authority to take nimble and reasonable steps that enable us to keep our campuses open for the education students need, parents expect, and Wisconsin deserves.”

“Today’s action feels like a political statement; our focus is to ensure we are doing what needs to be done now to safely open for in-person teaching this fall,” UW system spokesperson Mark Pitsch said in an emailed statement after the vote.

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In announcing Tuesday that it would require all students, employees and visitors to wear masks when inside campus buildings, the Madison campus said officials “are particularly concerned about the next two months, when many of our students will arrive on campus from across the U.S. and around the world.”

“We want to continue to keep infection rates as low as possible in our community,” the university said in its announcement. “Recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Public Health Madison & Dane County advise that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks when spending time indoors with people who live outside their household. Given that we have students arriving from many destinations, we believe that requiring masks is the prudent thing to do. Our public health experts here at UW agree with this decision.”

Other colleges that announced indoor campus mask mandates this week include Alabama State University, Gateway Community and Technical College in Kentucky, North Central College in Illinois, Ohio State University, and Springfield College, in Massachusetts.

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