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McMaster: School mask mandate is ‘wrong thing to do, and we’re not going to do it’

Published: Aug. 9, 2021 at 9:24 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Gov. Henry McMaster urged South Carolinians to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but insisted school districts should not require masks in the classroom.

“The new variant, the delta there, it does pose a real threat. We know that it spreads more easily,” McMaster said. “But shutting our state down, closing schools and masking children who have no choice -- for the government to mask children who have no choice to protect adults who do have a choice is the wrong thing to do. And we’re not going to do it.”

The governor held a news conference Monday morning from the Statehouse in Columbia where he acknowledged the increase in COVID-19 cases blamed largely on the Delta variant, which researchers have said is more contagious than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

McMaster said now is a great time to get the vaccine as schools gear up to begin the new school year.

He said he took the vaccine and urged others to do so, as well.

“I’ve been vaccinated. I’ve believed that it works. Studies show that all of the vaccines, all three are highly effective against COVID and the new variant,” McMaster said.

McMaster said masks in the classroom make it difficult for teachers and students to communicate with one another because they cannot see each others’ faces. At one point, he used his difficulty in hearing a reporter’s question as an example of the challenges masks in the classroom could cause.

“That’s the problem, I can barely hear you,” he told the reporter. “Imagine if everybody in schools were masked. That’s the problem. That’s one of the problems. And you’re hollering.”

In a news release sent three days before the governor’s press conference, DHEC and the S.C. Department of Education said, “Masks are safe, do not interfere with learning and have provided no barrier to socialization.”

When asked if masks would keep kids safer, McMaster replied “masking would help, but so would keeping them home. So would keeping them in their bedroom and not sending them to school at all, but that’s not necessary and there are negative consequences.”

McMaster also said we know more about the virus than we did this time last year and are in a better place to fight against it.

“Although we know cases are on the rise, they are not where they were a year ago,” he said.

According to the latest data from DHEC, there were 2,467 reported COVID-19 cases on August 7th, 2021. In comparison, there were 1,241 on the same date last year.

However, the death rate has declined over the past year.

The governor also addressed challenges to the temporary state law that bans the use of state funds to require masks in schools or enforce a face covering mandate.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin argues if city funds are used to purchase the masks and the Columbia Fire Marshals enforce the mandate, it’s legal.

The governor strongly disagreed with Benjamin.

“There’s no way to get away from it whether the masks are provided free or by some other sources- it’s irrelevant because if the enforcement mechanism is present in the school then that is using state funds to enforce it. That’s my view. That’s the view of the General Assembly, and I think that’s the view of the court if it were presented to the court,” McMaster said.

McMaster told reporters the current numbers on the pandemic are down from what they had been and said the numbers last year did not reach the level of the “worst-case scenario” for which the state prepared.

“That’s because we handled it well and we will do it again this time,” he said.

He compared a mask mandate to having commuters park their cars.

“If everybody parked their cars, we’d probably have a whole lot fewer accidents on the road than we do, because people are driving, but we have to drive and commerce has to go on,” he said. “We have to go to school, children have to learn, and if it is not necessary for the government to require to mandate that they wear a mask over the opposition of the parents and we’re simply not going to do that, that is not the government’s role.”

This conference follows the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Controls’ announcement that 92% of the cases they have sampled have tested positive for the delta variant of COVID-19.

McMaster said Friday state law is “very clear” about mask mandates. A state budget proviso prohibits South Carolina educational institutions from using appropriated funds to mandate masks.

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