Mandatory legislator quarantine sought after SC session


COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina lawmaker is seeking a "mandatory quarantine at home" for all state legislators following this week's special session amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Noting that he supports the decision for lawmakers to hold the one-day session Wednesday, state Rep. Justin Bamberg wrote to House Speaker Jay Lucas on Sunday that, although necessary, the legislators' gatherings "run counter to the mandates and suggestions in place for our citizens."

"It does us no good to make efforts to protect our citizens while at the same time returning home and possibly exposing them to COVID-19 should any Member present on Wednesday be asymptomatic of the virus," Bamberg, a Democrat, wrote. "Returning to session to fulfill our continuing obligations to the people of South Carolina is true leadership. Failing to take adequate measures to protect our citizens upon our return is not."

A spokeswoman for Lucas did not immediately return an email message seeking comment Sunday afternoon.

There is no formal stay-at-home order for all South Carolinians, although all non-essential businesses are closed, and Gov. Henry McMaster has repeatedly stressed that the state's citizens stay home and practice social distancing when they must go out.

Lawmakers in both the state House and Senate plan to return to Columbia on Wednesday for a limited session to take up budget issues and other resolutions, and both chambers are spreading out their members. The desks in the House are made for two members, but Lucas is asking just one member to sit there while the other uses chairs against the wall or the spectator balcony.

Senators will be allowed to use any space in and around the chamber and balcony, according to Senate President Harvey Peeler. Ten of the 46 senators are 70 or older, the age group most at risk with COVID-19.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

South Carolina had reported more than 2,000 COVID-19 cases statewide as of Sunday afternoon, with at least one case reported in every county. The virus has caused at least 44 deaths in the state. 

State health officials said that, while the case and death numbers had increased, the availability of hospital beds had improved. This weekend, more than 5,900 South Carolina hospital beds were available statewide and nearly 6,300 were utilized.

Ahead of the session, some South Carolina lawmakers have expressed displeasure that the chambers will be in session as the coronavirus spreads.

"What kind of message are we sending when we try to get 170 legislators and staff members and other people into one place when we are telling everyone else in the state not to gather in groups of more than three?" said state Sen. Mia McLeod, a Columbia Democrat who has sickle cell anemia and said she will not attend the session.

The General Assembly session would end on May 14 if lawmakers took no action, leaving in limbo changes needed for class time requirements and graduation prerequisites for students, possible voting changes for the June 9 primaries and changes to the state spending plan as it seems likely the state's expected $1.8 billion in additional money will be greatly reduced.

Lucas and Senate President Harvey Peeler, both Republicans, said they consulted health experts before deciding to meet, saying the spread of the virus would continue and conditions get more severe over the next several weeks.

"While I hope for the absolute health and safety of each and every member of this House, I believe our return is essential. There absolutely is risk involved in returning to Columbia. No one can deny that," Lucas wrote in a letter to House members.