Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has regrets.
Hutchison signed a law preventing local entities such as cities and schools from enacting mask mandates.
Now, Hutchinson does not support a statewide mask mandate, but as his state’s COVID-19 infection rate rises he recognizes that children not eligible for the vaccination need some protection.
“In hindsight, I wish that had not become law, but it is the law and the only chance we have is either to amend it or for the courts to say that it has an unconstitutional foundation,” he said.
In South Carolina, meanwhile, Gov. Henry McMaster’s executive order banning mask mandates remains in effect as does the State Legislature’s budget proviso prohibiting South Carolina’s school districts from mandating masks during the 2021-22 school year.
Any regrets yet?
Children are heading back to school. COVID infections and hospitalizations, thanks to the easily transmissible delta variant, are on the rise. Vaccination rates among our 5.1 million residents are low, hovering at under 45 percent for the state.
Local entities here including the city of Columbia and the University of South Carolina recognize the problem and each have considered or are considering mask mandates, but with the current state law in place the question is can they?
In Columbia, Mayor Steven Benjamin knows masks alone won’t end this pandemic. His administration has been actively encouraging residents to get vaccinated, too.
But Benjamin said he will declare a state of emergency and order that students in Columbia’s schools wear masks if he has to based on increasing infections and hospitalizations in the community.
Benjamin and City Council could argue that the emergency powers available to Benjamin would allow him to impose such a mandate within his jurisdiction.
“This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Benjamin said Tuesday. “We make a choice about whether or not to be vaccinated. Our children don’t have that choice… You can do what you want with your child, but I have a responsibility and right to protect my children.”
Prisma Health Children’s Hospital in Columbia, for instance, reported this week that it has hit capacity due to a rise in hospitalizations due to respiratory illnesses in patients, many of whom are too young to get the vaccine.
The same day that Hutchinson spoke of his regrets, University of South Carolina Interim President Harris Pastides issued a statement explaining why the school, which had planned to mandate masks, was changing course.
“Last week, I authorized face coverings for our university community because my top priority is the safety and health of our students, faculty and staff. During my training in epidemiology, there was a maxim about transmissible diseases like COVID-19 that stated, “No one can be safe until everyone is safe.” I also remember the eradication of smallpox in 1980 through vaccination, as well as the effective vaccine control of polio, measles, mumps, rubella and other serious illnesses when I was a child. There were some side effects to the vaccines, as there are with every medication, but without doubt vaccines have saved millions of lives. Because vaccination cannot be required in South Carolina, I felt that face coverings would go a long way in preventing the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, which is highly contagious, on campus. I did not think that the law precluded this action,” Pastides wrote.
But, he explained, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson sent the school his legal opinion that “the General Assembly intended to prohibit public universities from requiring the wearing of masks in their buildings.”
So, the mask requirement at USC, for now at least, is off.
Pastides closed the letter with a final plea.
“I remain committed to encouraging all Gamecocks to wear face coverings and to get vaccinated for the benefit of themselves and others,” he said.
People like Benjamin and Pastides are trying to do the right thing – protect their constituents.
The law shouldn’t become a barrier to that effort.
There are 9,917 dead South Carolinas who are no longer with us because of COVID-19 and if you believe in the value of human life that should be enough to convince you that Benjamin, Pastides and others in positions of authority should have the ability to do what they need to do to protect their communities.
As President Biden said Tuesday, “If you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way of people that are trying to do the right thing.”