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Some SC Cities OK Emergency Mask Rules Again as COVID Cases Spike

Steve Benjamin,Sam Johnson
Jeffrey Collins/AP
Lawyer Sam Johnson, left, talks to Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin after Benjamin endorsed him to be the next mayor on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. Benjamin chose Johnson, who was barely out of his teens when they met in 2009, over three current or former Columbia City Council members. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

Some South Carolina cities are bringing back indoor mask requirements as this summer's COVID-19 outbreak in the state rivals the height of the pandemic last winter before vaccines were widely available.

Three Midlands cities — Columbia, West Columbia and Cayce — all passed requirements that people wear masks indoors in public places except while eating and a few other exceptions. The emergency rules follow a ban by state lawmakers on mandatory masks in schools for the most part.

South Carolina never passed a statewide mask mandate but allowed local governments to do so in 2020. Most of them faded away after Gov. Henry McMaster ended a 14-month long COVID-19 state of emergency in June when the state was seeing about 150 new cases a day.

Now, South Carolina is seeing about 5,400 new COVID-19 cases a day, similar to the pandemic's previous peak in January. The state has the second highest number of new cases by population just behind Tennessee, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

"Not enough people are vaccinated, not enough people are consistently or properly wearing masks, and the delta variant is proving to be hypertransmissible," South Carolina Public Health Director Dr. Brannon Traxler said Wednesday.

The state has reported 10,996 deaths from COVID-19 as of Wednesday. South Carolina passed 100,000 deaths just 28 days earlier.

Roper St. Francis Healthcare infectious disease Dr. Kent Stock said in a video posted by the hospital on Twitter that the death toll from the disease is as staggering as any he has seen in his career, made even sadder by a free and widely available vaccine that can now prevent most deaths.

"People just dismiss it. They rationalize it away. They do what I do every day to get through the day," Stock said, pausing as he failed to keep from crying. "We lose a little a little bit of our humanity."

This latest wave of COVID-19 has coincided with the return of students to school combined with large gatherings like football games.

And it is hitting young people hard after the first waves left them mostly untouched. About a third of all COVID-19 cases in the state in the past month have been in people 20 and younger, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Prisma Health, which operates about half the hospital beds in South Carolina in the Upstate and the Midlands, had 568 people hospitalized Wednesday with COVID-19. That was 24 more patients than its previous peak. More than 90% of the patients in the hospital did not get the COVID-19 vaccine, the health system said.

Prisma had to suspend elective surgery at its largest hospital in Greenville for the rest of the week so those health workers could help with COVID-19 patients.

"Given the recent Labor Day celebrations — and now as we go into fall football season — we are deeply concerned that the public is still not taking this pandemic seriously. The COVID delta variant is much more contagious," Prisma Health Upstate Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Wendell James said in a statement.

The virus is spreading through schools as well. State health officials are reporting nearly 6,000 cases in school employees and students when school has been in session less than a month.

DHEC issued new guidance for schools Wednesday, suggesting they go back to online classes if they have 5% to 10% of students testing positive or 30% absent because of positive tests or quarantining.

School districts can't pass their own mask mandates because of a budget rule passed by the South Carolina General Assembly in June that prevents state money from being spent enforcing a mask rule. The state Supreme Court ruled last week that cities can't overrule the state.

DHEC has urged lawmakers for weeks to come back in special session and allow masks, repeatedly showing evidence that masks worn properly do slow the spread of COVID-19.

"It's frustrating to know and have the answer and have the evidence that backs that answer and still see the same problems persist," Traxler said.

West Columbia and Cayce don't include schools in their new emergency mask rules. Columbia's mask ordinance is trying to find a way around the state ban by having city fire marshals and other officials who aren't paid with state money enforce the rule.

"We paid close attention to the final word the Supreme Court had on schools," Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said.

Other local governments are taking their own steps to slow COVID-19's spread. Charleston, North Charleston and Charleston County are all requiring employees to be vaccinated against the disease.


Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.


Follow AP's coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.