If you wanted to understand why every Republican in the S.C. Senate voted to tell businesses who they can’t fire, Tuesday would have been a good day to visit the Statehouse.
It wouldn’t have explained why all the Democrats also voted for the S.177, which prohibits most businesses from requiring their employees to get vaccinated, even though most Democrats support efforts from anywhere to combat COVID-19. (One Democrat suggested that Democrats simply knew they couldn’t stop the bill so figured there was no use in attracting Twitter trolls by objecting — an increasingly common response to what most lawmakers would have considered fringe legislation, oh, last year.)
But the explanation for the Republicans — most of whom pledge allegiance every day to the gospel of the free market and cross their hearts and swear so help them God to never, ever place any regulations or restrictions on the free exercise of businesses — was right there on the grand stairway leading to the Senate chamber: Hordes of unmasked women, crowded together, apparently for a photo.
And when I say crowded, I mean four and five to a step, covering at least 20 steps.
A half block away, they could have been fined, since Columbia — unlike the state of South Carolina, and unlike a disturbing number of other localities that are dropping their COVID requirements prematurely — requires masks in public places. But the Legislature controls the Statehouse and legislative office buildings and has made them mask-optional outposts.
I crossed the lobby to keep my distance, and ran into a House member who told me they were part of a group of Republican women from the Upstate who were visiting the Statehouse and the governor’s mansion. We were still chatting when the women finished their photo shoot and came bounding up the House stairs in gaggles.
They looked much more Junior League than Typhoid Mary, but one reached out her hand to greet my companion, unconcerned that conservative people (that is: people who don’t take unnecessary risks) stopped shaking hands a year ago. And started wearing masks. And keeping a safe distance.
But this is what has become the Republican Party base. Less concerned about keeping government out of businesses than about ensuring that businesses don't interfere with employees' fetishes. Not just hostile to mask mandates and masks, but determined to impose their reckless behavior on anyone unfortunate enough to land in their pathway. The unmasked women were much more polite, but the attitude was reminiscent of the maskless drunks who yell out obscenities when people walk by wearing masks.
Last month, House Republican Leader Gary Simrill managed against the odds to fight back an attempt to prohibit state agencies from requiring anyone to get COVID vaccinations, reminding his colleagues that such “feel-good pieces of sound and fury” could prevent veterans’ nursing homes from protecting the state’s most vulnerable people by telling their caregivers they don’t have to get a shot.
On Tuesday, Mr. Simrill told me COVID is making it especially difficult for lawmakers to think about the ramifications of their actions, noting that when politics and policy clash, politics too often wins. He wouldn’t predict the fate of the Senate legislation, but I was encouraged when he said that while the Legislature wasn’t going to require anyone to get vaccinated, there are reasons people in certain jobs need to be vaccinated, whether to protect their patients or to protect fellow workers.
Or perhaps, it seems to me, because employers want to be able to reassure hesitant customers that their business is as safe a place as they can make it.
“One size,” Mr. Simrill said, “does not fit all.”
In the House chamber, representatives — many unmasked, as has become commonplace once again — stood to applaud the return of Rep. Jackie Hayes, and listened quietly as he spent 13 minutes recounting his near-death experience with COVID.
It’s the sort of tale that ought to give heartburn to the maskless ones, but I suspect it’ll just make them feel justified. After all, Coach Hayes, as his colleagues affectionately refer to him, wore and still wears a mask religiously. And still somehow got COVID. And nearly died.
If you’re looking for a reason to believe that masks are part of a woke conspiracy to strip patriotic Americans of their freedoms, that set of facts works quite nicely. Of course, if you’re looking for a reason to believe such dangerous nonsense, you’re probably not very picky about your facts.