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SC News

South Carolina Capital's Mayor Mandates Masks in Schools

Jim Clyburn,Steve Benjamin
Meg Kinnard/AP
/
AP
FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2020 file photo, Steve Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, S.C., right, looks on as U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, left, speaks with a voter outside a polling place in Columbia, S.C. During a city council meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, Benjamin said that he was considering issuing a new state of emergency for the city, a declaration that he said would allow him to impose mask requirements. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard, File)

The mayor of South Carolina's capital city has mandated the use of masks in city schools where some students are too young to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, a move he says will protect vaccine-ineligible children amid the pandemic's resurgence.

"What we're facing right now with the rise of the delta variant is a pandemic of the unvaccinated," Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin told The Associated Press on Wednesday, ahead of a news conference to discuss his plans.

"Adults can make decisions for themselves. ... Children do not have that ability or autonomy, and its important that we do what we should do, as a mature, compassionate, civilized society, and provide for our children."

The effort — which requires face coverings for children between ages two and 14, as well as faculty, staff and visitors in the city's schools and day cares, both public and private — puts Benjamin, a Democrat, at odds with Republican Gov. Henry McMaster as well as the GOP-controlled Legislature, which recently barred such policies for all public schools.

"The challenge is that our babies are unvaccinated," Benjamin, currently in his third and final term as Columbia mayor and among South Carolina's most notable Democrats, said during a City Council meeting Tuesday.
"If we as a community are not willing to do what is necessary to keep them safe and keep them alive, then that is indeed a statement on who we are as a people," he added.

Disagreements over the school masking issue have been percolating as districts and colleges plan to head back to classes this fall.

On July 1, a budget proviso took effect explicitly prohibiting educational institutions from using public funds to enact their own mask mandates. Tuesday, the University of South Carolina reversed its requirement that students and staff be masked indoors on campus after Attorney General Alan Wilson weighed in on that proposal, saying that the proviso — while "inartfully worded" — made the mandate illegal.

Noting that the proviso forbids a school mask mandate, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control said last month that it "strongly recommends mask use for all people when indoors in school settings, especially when physical distancing is not possible." State Education Department officials have noted publicly that they couldn't follow updated federal guidance recommending masks in schools.

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 — has applauded that measure, acknowledging the dangers posed by the delta variant but saying "shutting our state down, closing schools and mandating masks is not the answer. Personal responsibility is."

Benjamin, who is also an attorney, said Wednesday that he felt he had the legal authority to implement the policy, which he said City Council members would consider at a meeting Thursday.

Saying he had fielded bipartisan support for his actions, Benjamin noted that he hoped to avoid a lawsuit, adding that he felt the mandate didn't violate state law because he planned to use city, and not state, funds to provide masks to the city's schools.

"All the masks that we are mandating people to use, we will provide, as a city, to the schools," said Benjamin, adding that he had discussed the measure with Wilson before announcing it. "It is not affected by the budget proviso at all."

Wilson's office did not immediately return a message seeking comment Wednesday.

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 in South Carolina, with the average number doubling in the past two weeks to more than 400 cases a day amid no signs of slowing down, according to state health officials.
During an event Monday promoting vaccination, Dr. Anna-Kathryn Rye Burch, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, said Prisma Health Children's Hospital in Columbia is "at capacity almost every day" as the pandemic resurges.

"Our ICU is full of children with respiratory viruses, and some of those are COVID," she said.

Given those escalating numbers, Benjamin stressed what he saw as the need to take whatever measures necessary to safeguard children too young to receive vaccines.

"The most important thing that we can do is provide for the safety of our children," Benjamin told AP on Wednesday. "We need to decisively act to provide and protect them."

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.