After South Carolina’s capital city issued an emergency order requiring masks in schools and day cares for young students, mayors of other cities are taking note.
Citing rising COVID-19 cases, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin declared a state of emergency Wednesday and issued an order requiring all students between two and 14 years old to wear masks at schools and day cares. During a Thursday morning emergency session, Columbia City Council approved the mayor’s declaration in a 5-1 vote.
The Columbia ordinance underscores a political battle over masks in which state Republicans have sought to limit the ability for schools to require masks at both K-12 levels and at higher education institutions such as the University of South Carolina.
The fight could continue. S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who earlier this week advised USC to change its mask mandate, said Thursday he is studying Columbia’s mask mandate and may release a statement on it next week.
A proviso — a one-year law that’s attached to the state’s budget — prevents schools from enacting mask mandates, despite the urging of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The State reported previously.
Reporters from The State reached out to some of South Carolina’s largest cities and smaller cities within Lexington and Richland counties to see if they are planning something similar. Here is what they said:
Reached by phone ahead of the emergency meeting in Columbia, a spokesman for Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg referred The State to an op-ed by the mayor that published online Thursday morning. Tecklenburg continued to urge people to get vaccinated in an op-ed published online by The Post and Courier.
While the mayor celebrated that 64% of Charleston’s eligible citizens have received at least one dose of the vaccine, he said that getting more people inoculated against COVID-19 is the way out of the pandemic once and for all.
”We have the option of ending this pandemic. All we have to do is get vaccinated,” Tecklenburg wrote. “Would there still be an occasional breakthrough case here and there? Of course. But it wouldn’t be a pandemic anymore — and it wouldn’t affect schools or businesses or require us to wear masks or stay home on Friday night. We could finally get back to our normal lives.”
Thursday afternoon, city spokesman Jack O’Toole confirmed Tecklenburg is also reaching out to experts and other leaders near Charleston to hear their input before deciding on whether to enforce a mask mandate.
“With a large majority of our area’s population outside the city of Charleston, the mayor is reaching out to regional leaders and medical professionals to discuss this issue today,” O’Toole said in a statement provided to The State. “In the meantime, he continues to urge all citizens to follow CDC guidelines, and all eligible residents to get vaccinated without delay. Vaccines are free and widely available throughout the area, including the (Medical University of South Carolina) drop-in clinic at the city’s municipal building at 180 Lockwood Avenue.”
Greenville Mayor Knox White said the city does not have any jurisdiction over schools, but will consider issuing some sort of guidance for upcoming city-sponsored festivals and events. He said Greenville City Council meets on Monday and will get a briefing from local health officials and the city attorney about what the city can do, including mandating vaccinations for its own employees.
“From a legal standpoint our hands are tied,” White said. “I don’t think anyone has an appetite for a mask ordinance.”
Greenville was the first city in South Carolina to enact a mask ordinance last year and saw immediate results in a reduction of the number of cases within the city limits. The surrounding Greenville County did not enact a mask ordinance. Greenville County has continued to have one of the highest number of cases per capita throughout the pandemic.
White said he believes encouraging vaccinations is essential, but he’s not sure what the city can do beyond the regular health briefings they’ve held.
Irmo Mayor Barry Walker won’t rule out an emergency mask declaration, but told The State the focus needs to be on getting as many people vaccinated as possible.
“I don’t think the town would be willing to enforce a mandate when we have solutions,” Walker said, referring to vaccinations. “It’s totally ridiculous that we don’t take advantage of what we have in front of us.”
As for schools, Walker said he wants to give the Lexington-Richland 5 school board space to make the decisions it thinks is best regarding mask requirements. However, given a state budget proviso that prevents schools from enacting mask mandates, Walker said he would consider a town-wide mandate if school board members approached him and urged him to enact a mask mandate.
As for Cayce, just across the Congaree River from Columbia, it’s unclear what the chances are of the city following Columbia and calling for a mask mandate.
“We have not discussed a mandate at this time,” City of Cayce spokeswoman Ashley Hunter said in a statement. “But, just as we’ve always done, our Cayce City Council and city staff will continue to closely monitor data and advice from medical experts to help us make the best decisions for the city.”