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SC governor closes beach access; still no stay-at-home order

March 30, 2020 GMT
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In this Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 photo, U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., speaks at a South Carolina Democratic Party dinner in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)
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In this Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 photo, U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., speaks at a South Carolina Democratic Party dinner in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Whether all of South Carolina should go under a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus continued to be debated by cities and towns and by lawmakers at both the state and federal level Monday.

The ultimate decider, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, did not weigh in on the order Monday. But he took one more step toward effectively closing the state: The governor ordered the closing of all access points to the state’s beaches. He also closed public boat ramps and public access points to rivers and lakes.

Instead of a broad stay-at-home order, McMaster has taken a fatherly approach, taking away things as problems develop. First it was closing dine-in restaurants and bars and later reducing allowable gathering down to just three people.

The executive order Monday closing beaches came after police had to break up large gatherings throughout the weekend.

“This is unfortunate for those who chose to responsibly follow the instructions of our public health officials, but it is a necessary action to prevent the spread of this dangerous virus,” McMaster said in a statement with the order.

People with private access to the beach, lakes and rivers can continue to use them as long as they don’t break the ban on groups.

The order also bans boats from stopping at islands or sandbars. Commercial fishing operations are exempt from the order.

McMaster has said before that a stay-at-home order closing nonessential businesses like gyms and hair salons is on the table, but he won’t issue it until he sees data from state health officials supporting it.

But plenty of others have offered their opinions. On Monday, Republican state House Speaker Jay Lucas said cities need to lay off issuing their own orders and trust the governor’s response to the coronavirus.

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Also Monday, Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, on quarantine in his Charleston home after contracting COVID-19, said the governor needs to issue a statewide stay-at-home order to end the uncertainty of beach communities that don’t want hundreds of outsiders visiting.

South Carolina reported 925 COVID-19 cases and two additional deaths, raising the number of people killed by the coronavirus in the state to 18, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s daily update Monday afternoon.

The 151 new cases were the most in a single day since the outbreak started earlier this month. Health officials have warned that a sudden increase in the number of cases is possible as a shortage of chemicals to complete coronavirus tests is alleviated.

South Carolina’s two largest cities, Columbia and Charleston, have stay-at-home orders in place, choosing not to lift them even after an opinion from state Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office that only the governor has the power under a state of emergency to make that decision.

The opinion is an educated guess at how a court would rule and is not enforceable unless there is a lawsuit over the issue. No suit has been filed.

But the opinion caused confusion with smaller coastal towns that want to seal off their communities to keep dozens or hundreds of people who could spread the virus away.

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“Over the weekend I was in constant communication with coastal mayors who are experiencing widespread confusion about their legal authority to take critical steps to keep their residents safe,” Cunnigham said in a statement asking the governor to end the confusion and issue a statewide order.

Lucas, who leads the South Carolina House, said local governments created the confusion by unnecessarily criticizing the governor. Lucas praised McMaster for consulting health officials before increasing hospital capacity and taking plenty of other steps to stop COVID-19 spread, including banning gatherings of three or more people and closing dine-in restaurants and bars.

“It appears that some local leaders merely consulted lawyers,” Lucas said in a statement. “I urge local government to work with state government rather than pitting themselves against this governor for personal political gain.”

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.