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Gov. McMaster: SC Law 'Very Clear' In Banning School Mask Mandates


South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said Friday that he sees a city-enforced school mask mandate - intended to cover children not eligible for the coronavirus vaccine - as a violation of state law.

As educators across the state mull how to handle a resurgent coronavirus ahead of the upcoming school year, South Carolina’s capital city ratified an ordinance Thursday mandating the use of masks in Columbia elementary and middle schools for at least the beginning of the school year. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, the Democrat who proposed the move, said that it will help protect children who are too young to be vaccinated against.

But a state budget proviso that went into effect July 1 prohibits South Carolina educational institutions from using appropriated funds to mandate masks. It's that provision that McMaster — who served two terms as South Carolina’s attorney general and was U.S. attorney during the Reagan administration — said preempts the city's action.

“I don't see how those two can coexist,” McMaster told The Associated Press during an interview on Friday.

Benjamin, who is also an attorney, told the AP 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. But McMaster said Friday that it's nearly impossible to entirely separate activity within public schools from state-appropriated funds.

“The state law, as part of the budget, says that funds cannot be used ... to facilitate required masking, and state funds permeate just about everything that the school does," McMaster said. “I think the state law is very clear."

McMaster, a Republican seeking reelection to his second full term next year, 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.

This spring, he 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. But, with the delta variant again pushing case counts upward, McMaster has continued to stress personal responsibility, acknowledging the current danger but saying government-mandated action isn’t the answer.

The Medical University of South Carolina said this week the variant is now responsible for 92% of its positive COVID-19 tests as hospitalizations from the disease have more than quadrupled across the state over the past five weeks.

The proviso in question has already been tested. Prompted by Attorney General Alan Wilson’s declaration that, while “inartfully worded,” the proviso made an on-campus, indoor mask mandate illegal, the University of South Carolina this week reversed its plan for the fall semester.

This week, an attorney with the law firm of Democratic state Sen. Dick Harpootlian argued that Wilson's interpretation should be thrown out, because he saw the proviso as a ban on mask requirements.

“If an attorney general can quite literally give entirely new meaning to otherwise plain words, and then use his own interpretation to coerce other departments of the government to conform to that view, then the power of that office is far greater than the legislature acting as a whole,” wrote Christopher Kenney.

Wilson’s office told the AP on Friday that its attorneys were still studying the legality of the Columbia council’s decision. McMaster said he had not spoken to Wilson, who has a “solid legal question” to consider.

If Harpootlian is so sure about the intent of lawmakers when they passed the proviso, he should get them to clarify it, Wilson said in a statement.

“This is a political question for the state legislature to address, not the Supreme Court,” Wilson said.

After falling below 100 cases a day in June, COVID-19 has roared back in South Carolina. The state is currently seeing an average of more than 2,000 cases a day — a rate similar to the pandemic’s second-largest peak last summer.

Since the end of June, the number of people in South Carolina hospitals with COVID-19 has increased more than 400%, to over 700 people. Around 200 people are in intensive care with the virus, and close to 100 are on ventilators — both five times greater than the number reported at the beginning of the summer by state health officials.

About 45% of eligible people in South Carolina are fully vaccinated, while more than half have received at least one shot.