COLUMBIA, S.C. — Despite his executive orders capping the size of public gatherings and requiring South Carolinians to wear masks at them, Gov. Henry McMaster flouted his own mandates at Thursday night's Republican National Convention.
He was spotted multiple times without a face covering and in close proximity to more than 1,000 other people at an outdoor gathering that well-exceeded the 250-person limit he's imposed on his state's citizens and businesses.
The governor - one of the president's earliest supporters and a staunch ally - attended President Donald Trump's speech on the South Lawn of the White House to close out the week's festivities. A photo posted on Twitter by a former McMaster staffer, taken from television coverage, clearly showed the governor not wearing a mask.
According to White House guidance, masks were required at the unsocially distanced event’s security checkpoints and encouraged in other high traffic areas. Rows of chairs on the South Lawn were inches apart. While some VIPs in close proximity to Trump were tested for the coronavirus, the practice was not extended to all 1,500 attendees.
“The governor wore a mask throughout the day until he was seated in a reserved area for governors and their spouses, and he continued to wear it after the president’s speech,” said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes, who added that McMaster was not among attendees tested for coronavirus on Thursday.
A Twitter photo posted by U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee, however, shows McMaster earlier in the evening with no mask, with his hand on the shoulder of another attendee who was wearing one.
Many of the executive orders McMaster has issued in the months since the pandemic began have referenced the need to practice social distancing and, in places where that's not possible, wear a mask. Since June 26, a pinned tweet on McMaster's official page has included a masked photograph of the governor, with a plea to “Wear a mask. Wear a mask. Wear a mask.”
“Wear a mask. Wear a mask. Wear a mask.” pic.twitter.com/3CxeVSJhZv
— Gov. Henry McMaster (@henrymcmaster) June 26, 2020
An August 2 executive order - which expired but was reincorporated into a subsequent one issued August 25 - included a mandate that people wear face coverings in all state government buildings and restaurants, unless actively eating or drinking. It also provided for the return of outdoor festivals and other events, capping attendance at 250 and requiring that “all employees, customers, patrons, suppliers, vendors, visitors, or other persons in attendance ... shall wear a Face Covering.”
McMaster, 73, has stopped short of ordering a statewide mask mandate, though his executive order says a patchwork of municipal ordinances covers many South Carolinians and that a statewide policy would be unenforceable. The August 2 order urged “counties and municipalities of this State to enact or implement appropriate and narrowly tailored emergency ordinances, orders, or other measures requiring individuals to wear a Face Covering.”
In June, Columbia, South Carolina’s capital city, was among the state's first to mandate face coverings. Acknowledging the burden placed on businesses, Mayor Steve Benjamin said at the time the requirement was not “a perfect solution, but it is a move and a thoughtful step in the right direction.”
On Friday, the Democrat said McMaster’s actions Thursday did little to inspire confidence that he’s serious about helping people struggling through the pandemic.
“Small businesses have shut down, South Carolina’s families have been devastated with over 2,000 lives lost, so many of our children can’t return to school safely,” Benjamin said. “And our governor still doesn’t understand the simple importance of leading by example.”
McMaster, who initially did not wear a mask or practice social distancing during media briefings and other events during the pandemic's early months, has since adopted the practices.
Earlier this month, South Carolina physician overseeing the state’s pandemic response argued publicly that new data showed mask ordinances are helping stem the illness' spread, noting that nearly 40% of South Carolina residents, or about 2 million people, live in areas with local requirements.
“We will be in a much better position in four to six weeks if South Carolinians practice physical distancing and use a mask,” Dr. Linda Bell, South Carolina’s state epidemiologist, said. “This new data shows us what we already knew, wearing face masks works,” Bell said.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.