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In busy news year, COVID-19 touches almost all in SC

December 28, 2020 GMT
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FILE- In this Friday, Oct. 30, 2020 file photo, Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison, back left, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., participate in a debate in Columbia, S.C. (John A. Carlos II/The Post And Courier via AP, File)
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FILE- In this Friday, Oct. 30, 2020 file photo, Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison, back left, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., participate in a debate in Columbia, S.C. (John A. Carlos II/The Post And Courier via AP, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell, a face so familiar to South Carolinians at the end of 2020, gathered lawmakers into a room for a public briefing on Jan. 29 with both a warning and an admission.

She said a “nCoV” virus first detected in China had infected five people in the United States. It was “a very serious and rapidly evolving situation” and “a potential public health threat in the United States.”

It wasn’t long before everyone knew it by a different name — COVID-19.

There was no need to panic even though scientists were still trying to pinpoint how contagious the virus was and how it might spread, Bell said in a Statehouse auditorium where usually visitors watch a short film on the history of the state before touring the Capitol.

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“In today’s connected world, an outbreak anywhere is a potential; risk everywhere. So we are likely to see sporadic cases in the United States and possibly in South Carolina,” Bell said.

Some 11 months later, it’s hard to remember anything happened in the state before COVID-19. But president-elect Joe Biden won the Democratic presidential primary before the first case was detected in South Carolina. One sheriff pleaded guilty to stealing public money and another was indicted on similar charges. Across the state, people mourned a 6-year-old girl found dead in Cayce after disappearing as she played outside.

But after that, everything in South Carolina had a COVID-19 component. Nine people die as 25 tornadoes cross the state in April in the deadliest twister outbreak since 1984 — how does COVID-19 affect the cleanup? South Carolina’s U.S. Senate race tops $100 million — how do people vote in a pandemic? Legislators prep for one of the most consequential sessions in years — how can you debate bills when you can’t safely meet?

Here’s a brief look at some of the biggest events in South Carolina in 2020, COVID-19 related and not.

COVID-19

Since that Jan. 29 appearance, Bell has been in front of cameras dozens of times with a message that appears to get more dire each time. The virus was much more contagious than expected. More than 230,000 residents have been infected and 4,300 have died.

Gov Henry McMaster ordered schools and businesses like gyms, beauty shops and restaurants closed. But he tried to reopen them as quickly as he could and refused to go back as South Carolina nearly led the nation in new cases by population in the summer, then topped those new case numbers during an early December surge.

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The Republican governor refused a statewide mask mandate, saying local governments were better equipped to decide the issue and enforce the rules.

South Carolina didn’t suffer as badly in economic terms as some states. The unemployment rate, which was 2.5% before the pandemic, soared to 12.8% in April before falling back below 7%. But restaurant, hotel and other tourism jobs took the brunt. One in five of those workers — nearly 50,000 people — had no job to return to.

PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY

The biggest non-COVID-19 story of 2020 was the Feb. 29 Democratic presidential primary. Joe Biden’s commanding win with 49% of the vote in a seven-candidate field propelled him to the nomination, just like wins in 2016 did for Hillary Clinton and 2008 for Barack Obama.

It was Biden’s first win in a presidential primary.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn. the highest ranking Black member of Congress and a fixture in South Carolina since being arrested as a student during the civil rights movement, endorsed Biden in a heartfelt speech three days before ballots were cast. Three days after South Carolina voted, Biden won 10 of 14 Super Tuesday states.

“My buddy, Jim Clyburn, you brought me back,” Biden said.

NOVEMBER ELECTIONS

Democrats had high hopes to gain in red South Carolina. Instead, Republicans gains just kept inching forward.

Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham beat Jamie Harrison by 10 percentage points despite the Democrat raising more than $100 million.

Republicans also won back a U.S. House seat as Nancy Mace beat Joe Cunningham as he sought a second term.

Republicans also gained three state Senate and two state House seats.

“Democrats didn’t do the fundamentals, they didn’t have the right candidate, and they definitely didn’t have the right message,” state Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick said after his party’s big night.

DEADLY TORNADOES

The deadliest tornado outbreak since 1984 struck South Carolina on April 13, as least 25 tornadoes hit from one end of the state to the other.

Nine people were killed. One tornado in Hampton County that killed five people was rated an EF-4 with winds of 175 mph (280 kph), according to the National Weather Service in Charleston. It was the strongest tornado in South Carolina in 25 years.

South Carolina did mostly get a reprieve from hurricanes. For the first time since 2015, the governor did not order a coastal evacuation. Tropical Storm Bertha did form, move ashore near Charleston and dissipate all in nine hours on May 27. And Hurricane Isaias skirted North Myrtle Beach and caused some ocean flooding before coming ashore in far southern North Carolina in early August.

LEGISLATURE

COVID-19 caused mostly a lost year in South Carolina.

Grand plans to complete a bill overhauling public education and determining the future of state-owned utility Santee Cooper faded away as the House and Senate only met a few times after the pandemic started to deal with COVID-19 bills, such as allowing no excuse absentee voting because of the pandemic, and smaller things they could easily agree on.

“We were forced last year to abruptly pause a legislative session that was picking up steam with many, many important legislative priorities left undone,” Republican House Speaker Jay Lucas said during the organizational session for next year’s House session.

SHERIFFS BEHAVING BADLY

More sheriffs in South Carolina found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood and Union County Sheriff David Taylor were indicted and are awaiting trials.

Florence County Sheriff Kenney Boone and Colleton County Sheriff R.A. Strickland both pleaded guilty and received probation instead of jail time.

Eleven sheriffs in South Carolina have been convicted of in-office crimes since 2010. Only five got prison time.

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