S.C. expert says state mask rule needed as COVID-19 continues to spread across state


COLUMBIA - More South Carolina cities are passing their own rules requiring masks as COVID-19 cases continue to spike in the state.

As Clemson and Charleston join Greenville and Columbia in requiring everyone to wear masks in grocery stores and pharmacies, the state's chief expert on infectious diseases said it might be time for a mask rule across South Carolina, something Gov. Henry McMaster has resisted.

State Epidemiologist Linda Bell said COVID-19 appears to be spreading too fast to wait for cities and counties to pass their own rules on face coverings.

"It would be much more effective if there was something that we could do statewide as quickly as possible to get as much more widespread adoption of masks," Bell told reporters Wednesday.

South Carolina reported 1,106 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday. Five of the past seven days have seen more than 1,000 new infections - the only days with more than 1,000 cases since the pandemic started in March.

The state again set a record with 881 people hospitalized with COVID-19. The rate of positive tests jumped to a near record 16.9%, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control reported.

On Wednesday, Sumter Mayor Joe McElveen issued a proclamation pleading with residents to wear masks and also asking area employers to require their employees to wear them when coming into contact with the public, although the proclamation isn't a law.

"As the simple act of wearing a cloth face mask significantly reduces the chances of the wearer being infected, all citizens of the City of Sumter are implored and strongly urged to wear a cloth face mask or other satisfactory face cover when away from her or his home and unable to practice safe physical/social distancing," McElveen wrote in the proclamation.

The state death toll from the virus is now at 691 after eight additional deaths were reported. South Carolina is approaching 29,000 total cases, DHEC said.

On Thursday, DHEC announced 35 new confirmed cases in Sumter County. Clarendon County has nine new cases, and Lee had one new case. The eight new deaths and two probable deaths announced Thursday included one probable death of a Sumter resident from the virus. DHEC reported that person's age category was not yet determined. Another of the deaths Thursday was of a middle-aged Lee County resident.

McMaster has resisted a statewide rule requiring people to wear masks, saying he does not like to step on personal liberties and he thinks it would be tough for police to enforce the rules.

Most of the city requirements include a $25 fine and are narrowly drawn to only require masks for everyone in grocery stores and pharmacies. They also require workers in all retail stores to wear face coverings.

There is some local resistance to mask laws. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey posted a video to the city's Facebook page urging residents to wear masks voluntarily.

"Protect yourself. Protect your family. Protect your friends and your co-workers," Summey said. "We don't want to regulate you having to wear a mask. It is common sense to wear a mask."

Meanwhile, the economic toll of COVID-19 continues. More than 17,000 unemployment claims were made in South Carolina for the week ending June 20, the state Department of Employment and Workforce said.

While that number was the lowest in the 14 weeks since COVID-19 started spreading in the state, the 17,000-plus claims are more than any week before the pandemic since the Great Recession in 2009.

Nearly 619,000 jobless claims have been made during the pandemic and the state has paid out $2.5 billion in unemployment benefits, the agency said.