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SC Attorney General says not unconstitutional to require masks in public, numbers jump again

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COVID-19 Coronavirus Testing in Lab

Clinical lab scientists April Kegl and Betsy McLaughlin load COVID-19 samples into a machine for testing. While Kegl is wearing a face shield, it is not necessary during this part of the process since the virus is safely sealed in tubes. File/Sarah Pack/MUSC

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said cities can pass local ordinances mandating masks in public, citing both the law of Home Rule and the health situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Masks would be required to wear masks in public indoor spaces like grocery stores or restaurants, as well as while interacting with people outdoors, and on public or commercial transportation. People will also have to wear them while walking anywhere that's too crowded to keep six feet of distance between each other.

Exceptions for people who can't safely wear or remove masks are included in the proposed ordinance, as well as for those actively eating, drinking or smoking.

Wilson's opinion on the constitutionality of such ordinances comes as both Greenville and Columbia recently passed their own local requirements.

It also represents his office's legal opinion and is not the final word, something that might depend on a court ruling from possible legal challenge.

"It is our position that a city cannot pass its own gun laws because a state law specifically preempts this action," his notice read. "However, in this case there is no state law that preempts or prohibits a city from passing this particular ordinance."

Additionally, he said cities cannot pass such ordinances if it is arbitrary.

"In other words, if there were no COVID-19 pandemic or public health emergency going on, a court might find the requirement to wear a mask arbitrary. That is not the case here," the opinion said.

The opinion comes as S.C. novel coronavirus cases hit another daily high Wednesday. Governors in three states also added South Carolina to a list of areas with high infection rates that will require anyone traveling from the state to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival.

The announcement from Connecticut, New Jersey and New York came as nearly 1,300 new confirmed coronavirus cases were reported in South Carolina. 

"We've taken our people ... to hell and back," New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said. "The last thing we need to do right now is subject our folks to another round."

Other states included on the travel quarantine list are Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Washington, Utah and Texas. 

Meanwhile, South Carolina health officials warned of increased dangers as Mount Pleasant additionally said it is considering joining other towns in making masks mandatory. 

Statewide mask usage "is important and is needed as quickly as possible," State Epidemiologist Dr. Laura Bell said Wednesday, and area-specific requirements like the ones Columbia and Greenville have enacted won't be able to stem the overall increase in infection rates.

Statewide numbers

Number of new cases reported: 1,291

Total number of cases in S.C.: 27,842

Number of new deaths reported: 10

Total number of deaths in S.C.: 683

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Number of hospitalized patients: 832

Percent of tests that were positive: 15.8 percent

Total number of tests in S.C.: 326,631

What’s happening in the tri-county region?

The tri-county region continued to see high coronavirus case numbers on Wednesday. Charleston County logged 175 new cases, Berkeley County confirmed 38 new cases and Dorchester County counted 32.

Where are the state's hot spots?

Greenville County led the state in new cases Wednesday, with 241 new confirmations. Horry County followed with 183 new cases; Charleston County saw 175.

On average, Charleston County saw the highest number of new cases over the past seven days, followed by Horry and Greenville counties.

South Carolina recently passed Florida in the percent of residents who've had confirmed infections, and rose above North Carolina's rate on Wednesday.

Deaths

Of the 10 patients whose deaths were reported Wednesday, eight were elderly and two more between 34 and 65 years old. They lived in Beaufort, Charleston, Dillon, Greenville, Lexington, Newberry, Orangeburg and Spartanburg counties.

What experts say

Officials with DHEC said they are increasing testing with a goal of reaching 165,000 residents per month by the end of the year, a move driven by the rising percentage of tests that come back positive.

They expect to confirm infections at a swelling rate through at least mid-July, and projections shared by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control indicate that over 2,850 patients in South Carolina could die by October.

A steady increase in both new confirmed cases and percent positive tests "tells us that we are going in the wrong direction, that we have a sicker population," Bell said Wednesday.

How to protect yourself

In addition to wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and quarantining if sick, DHEC officials said it's just as important to remember that people who don't show symptoms can still spread the coronavirus, even if they don't know if they're infectious.

"This places everyone at risk of getting the virus or unknowingly transmitting it to someone else," officials said.

Reach Sara Coello at 843-937-5705 and follow her on Twitter @smlcoello.

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