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Columbia mayor issues state of emergency requiring masks in schools, day cares

Published: Aug. 4, 2021 at 3:26 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 4, 2021 at 10:47 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Mayor Steve Benjamin issued a state of emergency for the city of Columbia on Wednesday that includes a requirement for everyone to wear a face-covering in Columbia schools. But, a spokesperson for Gov. McMaster says this mask mandate violates state law.

Mayor Benjamin says this comes in response to the recent rapid spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant, especially among children under the age of 12 who aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated.

“Adults are making decisions for themselves about whether to be vaccinated or whether to be masked, our children do not have that option,” Benjamin said.

The emergency declaration mandates that masks be worn by all faculty, staff, children over the age of two, and visitors in all buildings at public and private elementary and middle schools, as well as day cares. The ordinance also includes an exemption for religious establishments.

In a news conference, Benjamin said he wanted to make sure this ordinance had some accountability behind it, so he included a $100 fine in it on people who don’t follow the mandate.

“It will be common sense, it will be thoughtful, we know we are obviously working with children,” he said.

When asked who would be penalized, Benjamin clarified he will not fine children, parents, or teachers and instead the fine would go to district superintendents. He also said this will be enforced by city fire marshalls.

“The district has ultimate authority over schools by virtue of our constitution. The principals have authority to run the schools,” he explained.

RELATED | Columbia mayor, SC governor poised for face-off over mask mandates in schools

Benjamin made clear the state of emergency does not mean the city has reinstated a mask mandate for everyone. It is specifically for places educating and caring for children between the ages of 2 and 14.

The mayor also made clear he knows this move can face legal challenges.

“We are fully prepared to hold that position, fight that position all the way to the Supreme Court,” Benjamin said.

When he announced the declaration, Benjamin read aloud a Proviso in the state budget that the Governor’s team says invalidates this order.

“No school district, or any of its schools, may use any funds appropriated or authorized pursuant to this act to require that its students and/or employees wear a facemask at any of its education facilities. This prohibition extends to the announcement or enforcement of any such policy,” the Proviso says.

In a statement, the Governor’s team attacked the mayor’s move.

“This is another attempt to force children to wear masks in schools without a bit of consideration for a parent’s right to make that decision,” wrote McMaster’s spokesperson. “State law prohibits mask mandates in public schools, and the city’s ordinance would require teachers and administrators to violate state law.”

Richland School District One Commissioner Aaron Bishop supports the mayor’s ordinance and called it an example of true leadership.

“They are voteless as children, parents are voters, but children aren’t voiceless...you have to consider the fact that children under 12 don’t have a vaccine,” Bishop said. “So, we have left them vulnerable by not having a mask mandated in our schools, maybe even our state, but now the city has taken a step to say no we’re going to protect children.”

The mayor also said he discussed mask requirements in schools with other mayors in the state including those from Greenville and Charleston.

“I have no idea what their intentions are but I hope and pray we will have more and more people following our lead.”

The City of Columbia will have an emergency meeting Thursday at 10 a.m. to ratify the state of emergency.

The emergency ordinance will last for 61 days after it is enacted if another ordinance is not issued to replace it.

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