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SC News

South Carolina Prosecutor: Law Bars Columbia's School Mask Order

SC Attorney General Alan Wilson
Meg Kinnard/AP
/
AP
FILE - In this April 30, 2021 file photo, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson speaks to attendees at the Richland County GOP convention in Columbia, S.C. 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. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

State law prohibits South Carolina's capital city from instituting a school mask mandate intended to cover children who are age-ineligible for the coronavirus vaccine, according to guidance from the state's top prosecutor.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Columbia's City Council and Mayor Steve Benjamin, Attorney General Alan Wilson wrote that the recently approved measure is "in conflict with state law and should either be rescinded or amended."

"Otherwise, the city will be subject to appropriate legal actions to enjoin their enforcement," Wilson added, giving Columbia leaders until Friday to detail their efforts to "bring the city's facemask ordinances for schools into compliance with state law."

Last week, Columbia leaders ratified an ordinance mandating the use of masks in the city's elementary and middle schools for at least the beginning of the school year. Benjamin, the Democrat who proposed the move, said that it will help protect children who are too young to be vaccinated.

But a state budget proviso that went into effect July 1 prohibits South Carolina educational institutions from using appropriated funds to mandate masks. Wilson has already weighed in on the measure; prompted by his declaration that, while "inartfully worded," the proviso made an on-campus, indoor mask mandate illegal, the University of South Carolina last week reversed its plan for the fall semester.

Gov. Henry McMaster — a former state prosecutor who, like Wilson, is a Republican — has long shied away from comprehensive mask mandates, refusing to issue one during the peak of the pandemic last year, but for a time ordering face coverings be worn in restaurants and state buildings.

Calling it "the height of ridiculosity" this spring for a school district to require a mask over any parent's wishes that their child go without one, McMaster has repeatedly reiterated that message, also telling The Associated Press last week that he saw Benjamin's move as illegal.

South Carolina is now averaging nearly 3,000 new cases of COVID-19 a day, a level only exceeded from December to February at the height of the pandemic, before vaccines became widely available. Less than half the state's eligible population is vaccinated.

Hospital beds are filling fast, too. More than one out of every eight patients in a hospital bed in the state have COVID-19, according to Department of Health and Environmental Control data released Tuesday. The 1,166 people with the virus is nearly 10 times more than the number of COVID-19 patients at the end of June.

The number of those patients in intensive care or on ventilators because of the virus is up more than 800% in less than six weeks.

With 10 of the state's 80 public school districts already back in session, there have been 68 COVID-19 cases in students and 17 in school employees, according to state health officials.

"While we appreciate the efforts of city leaders around the state to protect their populace from the spread of the COVID-19 virus and variants of it, these efforts must conform to state law," Wilson wrote.

Benjamin, who is also an attorney, told the AP last week that he believes the mandate doesn't violate state law because he plans to use city, and not state, funds to provide masks to the city's schools.

In a statement, Benjamin said city leaders "fundamentally disagree" with Wilson's stance, "are assured we are not in violation of state law, and are prepared to defend our position."

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

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Jeffrey Collins in Columbia contributed to this report.