Greenville considers mask requirement; Sumter mayor is researching authority of cities to make coverings mandatory


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A South Carolina city is considering whether to become the first in the state to require people to wear masks as the state is among a dozen or so continuing to record daily highs in new cases of COVID-19.

The Greenville City Council held an emergency meeting Monday evening to consider the mask requirements.

All employees in restaurants, retail stores, salons, grocery stores and pharmacies would have to wear masks. Customers in grocery stores and pharmacies would need coverings over their noses and faces, and anyone who can't wear a mask because of age or underlying illness is excluded.

Greenville has had some of the highest COVID-19 rates in the state in recent weeks.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster again said Monday that he isn't considering a statewide mask requirement because it might violate people's rights. He has emphasized making the right choice and wearing face coverings voluntarily to slow a rise in cases that has the state in the top five in the nation for new infections.

"It's time to take it very, very seriously. We've said that from the beginning. There is very little other than that we can do," McMaster said at a Monday media appearance. He wore a mask, which he rarely has in public before.

The state has seen at least 900 new cases each of the past five days. South Carolina had never had that many cases in a day before. Since Friday's new record of 1,081 new confirmed cases were announced, there have been 3,006 new cases announced, including 1,002 on Monday, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

On Friday, there were 660 people hospitalized for COVID-19. On Monday, there were 731, a record high, though the percentage of positive tests did dip below 13%, DHEC said.

Sumter's new cases seem to be on a similar trajectory as is being seen statewide, with a record 46 new cases announced in the county on Friday and a total of 88 in the three days following, bringing the total number of people confirmed to have COVID-19 in Sumter County to 825 and those who have died to 21.

Clarendon County, which earlier on in the pandemic was a hot spot for both known infections and deaths, is reporting a decline in new cases and deaths from this spring.

Sumter Mayor Joe McElveen said he isn't certain of the authority that a mayor or a city council has to enact a mask requirement, but he "strongly urges" people to start wearing masks in any situation where they can't distance themselves from others. A minimum of 6 feet is the state and federal recommendation.

The matter is also one he thinks every council member would need to agree on.

"It's certainly a concern, and I don't want to bring it up if it can't be unanimously passed," McElveen said.

He said he will continue to advocate for everybody to wear a mask.

"It would be better if we all took personal responsibility for our own health and showed respect to everybody else's by wearing a mask," he said, "but I am examining to see what authority a city does have to do something like that."

Sumter County Council Chairman Jim McCain said the county governance body will follow the city's plans, but he did say council members have discussed the idea of a mask requirement.

"The consensus of my county council has been that they wouldn't go for it," McCain said. "I'm for wearing masks. The only hesitancy I have is I'm waiting to see, once Greenville passes and Columbia passes, what the governor is going to say because we've been following exactly along the governor's lines about what he's saying."

Monday also featured the release of the state's school reopening plan.

"Who would ever imagine a few weeks ago we would be sitting at over 1,000 cases a day? We've got to change our ways," state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said at a news conference Monday.

Students and teachers won't be required to have a COVID-19 test to go back to the classroom. But they will be asked about symptoms and exposure, Spearman said.

The state reopening report looked at three models - full in-person classroom teaching, full online teaching and a combination of the two. Which one gets used will depend on individual districts and the spread of the virus, Spearman said.

"Certainly, if the virus is running rampant, we're not going to sacrifice the safety of our children and our teachers just to say we're going back to school," Spearman said. "We're going to do it safely. I want them there. Everybody wants them there."

Social distancing rules will be in effect in classrooms and on buses, cutting the number of students that can be in both.

Parents who don't want to return their children to classrooms will also be accommodated, Spearman said.

Part of the new spike in COVID-19 cases appears to be recent protests over racial injustice. Lawrence Nathaniel of the group I Can't Breathe SC said in a Facebook post that more than a dozen people in the group recently tested positive for the virus.

Nathaniel said his group will cancel protests until they're able to work out a safe way of assembling. Other protesters should be careful about joining protests until they're sure they're not spreading the virus, he said.

At Sumter's recent protests, including one from two weeks ago that featured hundreds of church congregants and law enforcement officers, the vast majority of the crowd wore masks.

Meanwhile, The Greenville News reported that Clemson officials are reporting an increase of the virus in wastewater in the community. City and Clemson University officials have started testing wastewater going into a treatment plant, the city announced Sunday.

The announcement came two days after Clemson University announced 23 football players had tested positive for the virus.

On Friday, DHEC released updated age demographic data that shows that since April 4, newly reported cases among those aged 21-30 have increased by more than 400%, and there has been a more than 900% increase in newly reported cases among those aged 11-20.