South Carolina colleges add mask mandates after top court paves way

Dive Brief: 

  • Several South Carolina universities are requiring students and employees to wear face coverings inside campus buildings after the state’s top court opened the door for them to issue universal mask mandates. 

  • Lawmakers added a rule to the state budget earlier this year making it illegal for public colleges to mandate that unvaccinated students wear masks on campus. But in a unanimous opinion, a panel of judges said this law did not prevent colleges from implementing mandates that applied equally to those who are vaccinated and not vaccinated. 

  • At least five schools, including the University of South Carolina and Clemson University, instituted mask requirements after the ruling amid surging coronavirus cases throughout the state and nation. 

Dive Insight: 

The ruling is a victory for South Carolina colleges hoping to reduce virus transmission on campus while also holding more in-person classes this fall. It came after the state’s attorney general warned the University of South Carolina in early August that its mask mandate violated state law, leading the institution to pull back the requirement. 

However, the South Carolina Supreme Court had a different interpretation, ruling this week that nothing in the law “prohibits a universal mask mandate at a public institution of higher learning.”

Republican lawmakers may amend the legislation in September to also outlaw campuswide requirements for face coverings, but at least one senior legislator said the matter has been settled by the court, The Post and Courier reported

Similar battles are being waged in other states, with groups urging lawmakers to change statutes that don’t allow colleges to use coronavirus countermeasures such as mask and vaccine requirements. 

In some cases, officials are potentially disregarding or closely parsing state policies. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, signed an executive order in July barring public entities and those that receive state funds from mandating masks or the coronavirus vaccine. But some counties are defying his order, The Texas Tribune reported

That includes Dallas County, which attempted to require face coverings at colleges, public schools, businesses and some government buildings. The Texas Supreme Court temporarily shot down the order until the case is heard.

Arizona’s three public, four-year colleges have also implemented mask mandates indoors, potentially setting up a conflict with a state law barring institutions from requiring unvaccinated students to wear face coverings. However, an Arizona State spokesperson told the Arizona Republic the new law only prohibits universities from imposing different requirements based on whether students are vaccinated.

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