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McMaster urges wearing masks as SC coronavirus cases climb, but he won't close businesses

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Virus Outbreak South Carolina

Gov. Henry McMaster speaks during a briefing on COVID-19 on Monday, April 20, 2020, in West Columbia. McMaster on Wednesday said he has no plans to close businesses he reopened after the initial wave of the coronavirus, but he urged residents to take precautions against the spread of the virus. File/AP

COLUMBIA — With new diagnoses of reported COVID-19 cases climbing to record highs, Gov. Henry McMaster on Wednesday made his strongest plea yet for South Carolinians to wear masks in public and not be "stupid," but he made clear he will not reclose businesses. 

"It’s disappointing to go to places and see people all jammed up in crowds ... exposing themselves and possibly others. The ultimate price of this lack of care is death," the Republican governor said, calling it a matter of personal responsibility.

"Another word for it: Be smart. There’s a lot of stupid floating around out there. A lot of reckless and careless activity," he said. "We ask everybody to be very careful." 

His plea came as the state's epidemiologist, Dr. Linda Bell, said she's more concerned about COVID-19 in South Carolina than ever before, with case numbers repeatedly breaking daily highs this month and increases in the percent positive among those tested. 

"Masks and social distancing is how we stop this virus," she said. "We’re all eager to return to our normal lives but it will take us that much longer to get there if we don’t stop the virus today."

She said it's not a matter of practicing one or the other: "It’s not just a mask or 6 feet. It should be a mask and 6 feet."

Bell announced 528 new diagnosed cases of the coronavirus and seven additional deaths on Wednesday, bringing the total number of people confirmed since early March to 15,759; 575 of those patients have died.  

While it is important that people wear masks or face shields — unless they're essentially in a field by themselves — McMaster said he will not mandate it.

"We do not have enough police officers to go around the entire state and enforce mandates," he said. 

And even if he did require, for example, that all restaurant employees wear masks, they could still skirt the order by putting a mask on when officers arrive and taking them off as soon as they left, McMaster said. 

There's been an upward trend in South Carolinians testing positive in recent weeks, but McMaster said the state's rate of infection for cumulative cases is still better than other states that imposed more restrictions for longer periods. He cited numbers in New York and elsewhere to argue closing down again is not the answer. 

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Government-mandated closures for extended periods of time are essentially taking someone's property, he said. That's not constitutionally allowed without adequate compensation, and the state can't shut down people's livelihood indefinitely, said the state's former attorney general. 

"We cannot keep mandating things on the people. 1) The law doesn't allow it. 2) It's unenforceable, and 3) That's not the best way to do it," he said. 

He said there's little else he can and will do beyond appeal to people's desire to protect themselves and their loved ones, and to act responsibly so that South Carolina can return to some semblance of normal.

McMaster began loosening restrictions in late April by reopening boat ramps and letting people return to South Carolina's beaches, followed by allowing small retailers, restaurants and close-contact services such as salons to open their doors to customers. In his last rollback before Memorial Day, he allowed tourist attractions of all sizes to open. 

Businesses and activities still banned from opening include bowling alleys, theaters, arenas, and spectator sports. 

McMaster had no timeline for when he might lift remaining restrictions.  

Also on Wednesday, McMaster issued his "Phase 1" recommendations for how the Legislature should spend federal coronavirus aid, which closely aligned with recommendations from his accelerateSC task force.   

He recommends allocating the $1.9 billion in two separate chunks, with the first dispersed by month's end. The Legislature plans to return later this month to decide how to spend at least part of the money sent to South Carolina through a portion of the federal CARES Act specifically intended to reimburse state and local governments.  

At least $500 million should go toward replenishing the state's trust fund for jobless benefits, while $215 million should pay to bring back students early to help them catch up after losing three months of in-classroom instruction, McMaster said in a letter to legislative leaders.  

Other Phase 1 suggestions include $43 million for more COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, $17 million to create a 28-day state stockpile of protective equipment for health care workers and first responders, and $20 million to buy mobile hot spots that help K-12 students without high-speed internet at home.  

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

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