S.C. cities defy state on restrictions as virus cases rise

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina's governor is aiming to protect first responders during the new coronavirus outbreak, ordering that anyone calling 911 be asked if anyone near them has symptoms of COVID-19.

In a new executive order issued Saturday, Gov. Henry McMaster required that 911 emergency dispatchers to ask anyone requesting calls for service whether they or anyone at their location has tested positive or is symptomatic for COVID-19.

The order also authorizes the state's public colleges and universities, already doing coursework remotely, to finish out the 2020 spring semester via virtual learning. And it directs the continued closure of public K-12 school districts throughout the state.

The order also activates the South Carolina National Guard, activates anti-price gouging laws, restricting visits to nursing homes, prisons and jails, and gives emergency powers to the Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The move came as the state announced two new COVID-19 deaths, bringing its total to 15. The total number of cases rose by 121 Saturday to 660, reaching 40 of the state's 46 counties, according to the South Carolina DHEC.

Residents in Richland and Horry County died, the state said, with officials describing both as "elderly individuals who had underlying health conditions."

The department said the total number of cases jumped sharply because the state health lab had acquired enough chemicals to clear a backlog of tests Friday. Charleston County, with 108 cases, has the most overall while Kershaw County, with 77 cases, continues to have the most per capita.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

On Saturday, leaders of several South Carolina cities said they were defying McMaster's opposition to stay-at-home orders and Attorney General Alan Wilson's opinion that only McMaster can issue such measures.

In Folly Beach, where town officials had removed their checkpoint and had allowed vacation rentals to resume, the city council met Saturday afternoon and unanimously voted to re-establish the checkpoint and ban any new short-term rentals beginning Sunday.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said Saturday on Twitter that his city's stay-at-home order would take effect at 12:01 a.m. Sunday as scheduled. He said Wilson's Friday opinion saying cities and counties don't have the power to issue restrictions is "incorrect on a constitutional and statutory basis."

"This is not about politics or even a constitutional crisis," wrote Benjamin, who is a Democrat while top state leaders are Republicans. "It is a public health crisis that, without real, thoughtful, data driven, compassionate, clear leadership, will cost lives."

Charleston city officials have also imposed stay-at-home restrictions.

McMaster has voiced his opposition to a statewide "stay-at-home" order. He reiterated that position Friday, despite moves by the state's two largest cities to do so, closing businesses like nail salons, gyms and barbershops. The resistance to statewide stay-at-home orders is playing out with Republican governors all across the South.

A steady stream of cars entered Folly Beach by its only access road all day Saturday, even as a handful of protesters lined the sidewalk with signs saying "stay home" or "close it down."

Police Chief Andrew Gilreath said the city's small police force was struggling to separate crowds and enforce McMaster's order that people from Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, as well as the city of New Orleans, must self-isolate for 14 days upon arriving in South Carolina.

"It's like separating water in a bowl," Gilreath told the council during a meeting that was broadcast on the city's website.

Folly Beach City Attorney Joseph Wilson IV said the city has received numerous lawsuit threats but believes it can defend its action.

Edisto Beach also rolled back its restrictions Friday after Wilson's ruling, but two other beach cities, Sullivan's Island and the Isle of Palms, stood by them.