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State senator and AG debate if SC colleges can impose a mask requirement on campus

Published: Aug. 4, 2021 at 9:45 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 4, 2021 at 9:53 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - The now-revoked University of South Carolina mask mandate has ignited a heated back and forth between elected officials in the Palmetto State.

Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, wrote in a letter to South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson that the AG is “needlessly” inserting himself into UofSC business.

Harpootlian is referencing a previous letter Wilson sent to the university president saying the school can’t require masks to be worn indoors by all students and staff because of an addition to the state budget that is law for a year, also known as a Proviso.

“This is politics, it has nothing to do with science, and [Wilson and Gov. Henry McMaster] are killing people over this,” Harpootlian said in an interview with WIS.

Wilson responded to the state senator by calling his attacks “vitriolic” and saying some of his arguments are “incorrect.”

“[While] you have your view of the Proviso’s meaning, other members of the General Assembly, who were involved in its drafting, view the legislative intent quite differently,” Wilson wrote to Harpootlian.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, also weighed in on Twitter today disagreeing with the AG’s reading of the Proviso.

“To be clear, the law does prohibit making unvaccinated students wear masks as a way to push vaccines,” Massey tweeted. “That was the fear when law was written and what it was designed to address. It clearly does not prohibit universal masks.”

This debate began last week when interim UofSC President Harris Pastides announced that face coverings are required at all times inside of campus buildings unless a student is inside their residence hall room, a private office, or eating inside dining facilities.

Four days later, Wilson wrote a letter to Pastides saying his office interpreted the Proviso in the budget as a ban on any mask requirements at publicly funded institutions.

In a statement revoking the mandate, Pastides said he wasn’t aware he was breaking state law.

“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,” he wrote.

The Proviso being debated states that a public higher institution can’t use state 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.”

Wilson called the Proviso “ambiguous” and “inartfully worded” but said that reading it with the intent the General Assembly wrote it prohibited a mask mandate at UofSC.

Harpootlian represents the area surrounding UofSC and said a lack of mitigation efforts like masking and vaccination will lead to a rise in cases in his community.

“This is politics, it has nothing to do with science and they are killing people over this,” he said.

Harpootlian went further to say that Wilson’s letter to Pastides was an effort to “intimidate or bully” and was something the AG would later be able to promote in an email fundraiser to supporters.

“President Pastides is an epidemiologist. He knows better than Alan Wilson or me about what he needs to do to keep the student population safe,” Harpootlian said. “They’ve got students, most of whom are not vaccinated, and they need to make sure those students don’t spread it to other students. And what about the professors?”

Wilson wrote that he does not set health policy and suggested Harpootlian propose new legislation to change the Proviso if he wants to.

“This Office did not create the problem,” Wilson wrote.

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