The mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, Stephen Benjamin, declared a state of emergency in the state capital on Wednesday, triggered by Prisma Health Children’s Hospital in Columbia reporting that it is reaching a “strained capacity” of children being diagnosed with COVID-19.
The Columbia City Council in South Carolina subsequently ratified the state of emergency during an emergency meeting on Thursday, mandating masks for all faculty, staff, visitors, and children in public and private schools, and daycares that instruct children from ages 2 to 14.
The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office issued a press release later that day stating that it would be investigating the legality of the ordinance and would have an announcement next week.
Local Ordinance Versus State Law
During the meeting, Councilman Daniel Rickenmann said, though the council needs to do everything we can “to motivate and encourage” people to wear masks and get vaccinated, there is state legislation that prevents the council from mandating masks in schools.
Benjamin then told Rickenmann that the ordinance does not violate state law, and to not use that argument “as a decision to vote against this ordinance,” which Rickenmann later did.
Councilwoman Tameika Devine said going back to virtual classrooms or shutting down schools and businesses is not an option anyone wants, so the mask ordinance is a step to prevent that.
“I’m all for this ordinance,” Devine said. “I wish we could cover our colleges and our high schools as well, but I know that looking at, again, the least restrictive means, we are trying to protect those who are not eligible for vaccinations, but I would like us to continue to work with our school districts, our state and others to encourage even our higher education and high schools to be protected as well.”
Councilman Edward McDowell said it’s the “moral responsibility” of the council to protect the children.
The South Carolina Constitution authorizes the city of Columbia enact health regulations for the protection of its citizens, Benjamin said.
“That’s our state constitution,” Benjamin said. “Our city code also gives the mayor the authority to declare a state of emergency to provide adequate protection for lives, safety, health, and welfare when directed by city council, which is what we are doing here today.”
In the ordinance, the surge of the Delta variant being a threat to unvaccinated children is cited as the impetus for the emergency declaration, with vaccination rates in South Carolina near the lowest in the country.
The relaxing of social distancing, mask-wearing, and low vaccination rates, are being blamed for creating a “’perfect storm’ that has strained capacity at Prisma Health Children’s Hospital in Columbia as more children are diagnosed with COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses, causing crowded offices, emergency rooms, floors and intensive care units,” according to the language of the emergency ordinance.
Failure to comply will result in a civil infraction and a fine of $100.
The CDC’s Changing Recommendations
Currently, the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recommendation is for fully vaccinated people to wear masks in indoor settings, a reversal of a brief period during which the CDC said vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks indoors.
According to the CDC, COVID-19 cases have surged since June, despite what medical officials have called the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines.
Political leaders like President Joe Biden and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper are blaming the surge on the unvaccinated.
But despite being vaccinated, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on Twitter on Monday that he tested positive for COVID-19 and Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) announced on Thursday that he also contracted a breakthrough case.
The recommendations on masks have changed from them not being effective to the now fully vaccinated needing to “mask up.”
In March 2020, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci told 60 Minutes: “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask. When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better and it might even block a droplet, but it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is.”
In February 2021, the CDC issued recommendations to wear two masks.
Recent Mask Rulings
On Aug. 3, the University of South Carolina dropped its indoor mask mandate adopted on July 30 after South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson ruled that the mandate violated state legislation.
In an interview on Fox News on Aug. 2, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said that the education of children is inhibited by the wearing of face masks.
Amid school boards nationwide voting whether to mandate masks or not in their district, McMaster said in the interview: “We’re going to let the parents decide, but there is no confusion among the parents,” the Republican governor said. “We have seen what happens when these children are subjected to requiring masks so they can’t perform, they can’t learn.”