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Columbia mayor says he’ll require masks in schools if COVID cases continue to rise

·3 min read

Columbia’s mayor said Tuesday he will declare a state of emergency and order that students in city schools wear masks if COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the Midlands, despite an order from the governor limiting mask mandates.

Mayor Steve Benjamin made the comment at a meeting of Columbia City Council on Tuesday, saying he will look to his council colleagues “to back me up on this.”

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster seemed to hamper cities’ ability to impose COVID-19 restrictions when McMaster issued an executive order in June limiting local governments’ power to impose mask mandates. State lawmakers subsequently adopted a state budget proviso that prohibits S.C. school districts from mandating masks during the upcoming school year.

But Benjamin questioned if the governor’s order is sufficient to prevent cities from taking actions when faced with an alarming rise in new cases of the coronavirus.

“I don’t believe state law is as prescriptive as some people think,” he said.

City Councilman Howard Duvall asked if the city should consider legally challenging the short-term proviso approved by the Legislature, and Benjamin said he planned to bring that up in a closed-door meeting between the council and the city’s attorneys.

Duvall, who was also a longtime director of the S.C. Municipal Association, previously told The State he believes Columbia has the scope to issue a mask mandate as long as they don’t depend on past orders from the governor for their authority.

The mayor has the authority under state law to use emergency powers if he declares an emergency in the city. The city council would then need to meet and ratify the emergency declaration for a period of no more than 60 days. That power was used last year at the beginning of the pandemic, when the city imposed a local nightly curfew in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Any emergency declaration would only apply to schools within Columbia’s city limits. Benjamin did not indicate when he would decide to issue such an order.

“This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Benjamin said. “We make a choice about whether or not to be vaccinated. Our children don’t have that choice... You can do what you want with your child, but I have a responsibility and right to protect my children.”

A recent spike in COVID-19 cases have had the biggest impact on the unvaccinated and the young, health officials say. Prisma Health Children’s Hospital in Columbia reported this week that it has hit capacity due to a rise in hospitalizations due to respiratory illnesses n patients, many of whom are too young to get the vaccine. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control reported a sixfold increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the month of July.

“To have a hospital at capacity day-to-day, it would be immoral for us not to act if we don’t see a change in the trend of these numbers,” Benjamin said Tuesday.

The city has been vigorously pushing vaccines through the It’s Your SHOT campaign, which has included TV ads, vaccination events, heavy web messaging and even “wrapping” city vehicles with pro-vaccination messages.

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