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South Carolina capital requires masks in some city schools

August 5, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2020 file photo, Steve Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, S.C., right, looks on as U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, left, speaks with a voter outside a polling place in Columbia, S.C.  During a city council meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021,   Benjamin said that he was considering issuing a new state of emergency for the city, a declaration that he said would allow him to impose mask requirements.  (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2020 file photo, Steve Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, S.C., right, looks on as U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, left, speaks with a voter outside a polling place in Columbia, S.C. During a city council meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, Benjamin said that he was considering issuing a new state of emergency for the city, a declaration that he said would allow him to impose mask requirements. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2020 file photo, Steve Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, S.C., right, looks on as U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, left, speaks with a voter outside a polling place in Columbia, S.C. During a city council meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, Benjamin said that he was considering issuing a new state of emergency for the city, a declaration that he said would allow him to impose mask requirements. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s capital city has mandated the use of masks in city schools where some students are too young to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, a move that Mayor Steve Benjamin has said will help protect vaccine-ineligible children amid the pandemic’s resurgence.

City Council members voted nearly unanimously Thursday to ratify a state of emergency declared by Benjamin. The mayor, in his third and final term, has said he made that move to enable him to require masks for children between ages two and 14, as well as faculty, staff and visitors in both public and private schools and day care centers.

“Our children 12 and under do not have a choice to be vaccinated, as of right now,” Benjamin said during Thursday’s meeting. “If we are required to send our children to school — and I believe that we should — then the state ought to be required to protect our children while they’re at school.”

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New COVID-19 cases are rising exponentially in South Carolina, with the average number doubling in the past two weeks to more than 400 cases a day amid no signs of slowing down, according to state health officials. During an event Monday promoting vaccination, Dr. Anna-Kathryn Rye Burch, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, said Prisma Health Children’s Hospital in Columbia is “at capacity almost every day” as the pandemic resurges.

Councilman Daniel Rickenmann, the sole council member to vote against ratification, said he opposed it because “there’s a letter of the law out there that says we can’t do this.”

The declaration and its ratification sets up a legal challenge — which Benjamin has said that he expects — given the existence of a state budget proviso prohibiting educational institutions from using appropriated funds to mandate masks. But Benjamin, who is also an attorney, told 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.

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 reversed its plan for the fall semester.

Wilson’s office told The Associated Press on Wednesday that its attorneys would review the legality of the Columbia council’s decision.

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Noting that the proviso forbids a mandate, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control said last month that it “strongly recommends mask use for all people when indoors in school settings, especially when physical distancing is not possible.” State Education Department officials have noted publicly that they couldn’t follow updated federal guidance recommending masks in schools.

The effort also puts Benjamin, who is among South Carolina’s most notable Democrats, at odds with Gov. Henry McMaster. Earlier this year, the Republican 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, as declining coronavirus numbers prompted a debate over dropping masks for the waning weeks of the school year.

McMaster continues to applaud the budget proviso. He acknowledged the current dangers posed by the surging delta variant, but said “shutting our state down, closing schools and mandating masks is not the answer. Personal responsibility is.”

“This is not a heavy lift,” Benjamin said during Thursday’s meeting. “This is a smart, thoughtful compassionate action that ought not be political.”

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.