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Federal judge allows Charleston-area vaccine mandates to proceed

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Berkeley County above state average in vaccinations (copy)

A federal judge denied efforts to pause vaccine mandates enforced by Charleston- area government agencies. File

Local government employees in the Charleston area who don’t want to get vaccinated against COVID-19 will soon face being fired or tested weekly.

Federal District Judge David C. Norton on Oct. 21 denied requests to pause four governments' vaccine mandates.

The judge heard arguments Oct. 14 from plaintiffs' attorneys representing employees of the cities of Charleston and North Charleston, Charleston County and the St. John's Fire Department.

North Charleston employees are required to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 19. The deadline is Nov. 7 for Charleston County employees, Nov. 22 for city of Charleston employees, and Nov. 20 for St. John’s Fire personnel.

All of the mandates make exemptions for medical and religious reasons. If employees are granted an exemption, they may be subjected to weekly COVID-19 testing. Without an exemption, employees risk being fired.

Plaintiffs in each case, which were filed separately but heard together Oct. 21, did not want to comply with a series of COVID-19 vaccine mandates put in place by the area government agencies for all employees. The plaintiffs’ attorneys say 125 government employees were being represented in total.

They alleged the mandates violate state and common law as well as freedom of speech protections under the U.S. Constitution. 

Since March 2020, local government leaders have tried other preventive measures to keep employees safe, said Caroline Wrenn Cleveland, attorney for the governments. They have sent employees home with pay, implemented social-distancing requirements and encouraged people to get vaccinated — all before vaccine mandates began rolling out in September, Cleveland said in the hearing.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey issued a statement Oct. 21 granting a 14-day extension on the city's mandate to Nov. 19. 

"The City is hopeful that some Plaintiffs, having read Judge Norton's order, may now comply with the vaccination order to retain employment," the statement read. 

Tom Fernandez, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, issued a statement via Facebook Oct. 21.

“The decision for healthcare is a choice that must be left between an individual, their doctor, and their Heavenly Father. It should never be left up to government coercion under threat of fine, citation, or even loss of employment.”

Charleston city spokesman Jack O’Toole said the city’s vaccine mandate will continue moving forward. The deadline for employees to be fully vaccinated is Nov. 22. Employees were also given the option to request a religious or medical exemption. As of Oct. 21, about 10 percent of employees requested an exemption for medical reasons and 81 percent were fully vaccinated. When the mandate was first adopted in September, 60 percent of employees were  fully vaccinated.

"We thank the court for its swift decision in this case, and will continue with our efforts to protect both our workforce and community," O'Toole said.

Charleston County Chairman Teddie Pryor issued a statement in support of the judge’s decision.

“Charleston County Government is a wonderful place to work, and we hope employees come to understand the importance of this necessary safety measure,” he wrote in a statement.

The Charleston-area vaccine mandates involved in the lawsuits are not the only mandates in place in the state. The city of Columbia is requiring all of its employees to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1.

The Medical University of South Carolina was the first large employer in South Carolina to make vaccines mandatory for staff earlier this year. When the deadline for MUSC’s vaccine mandate passed this summer, a hospital spokeswoman confirmed MUSC had granted between 2,000 and 3,000 medical and religious exemptions for its workers. Some of the employees who received medical exemptions were able to prove they’d developed COVID-19 antibodies through a blood test because they had been previously infected.

More than 17,000 people work for MUSC. Only five people were eventually terminated for noncompliance with the mandate.

Reach Emma Whalen at 843-708-5837. Follow her on Twitter @_emma_whalen. 

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