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Editorial: Henry McMaster's new tack threatens to reverse SC COVID progress

McMaster at Governor's Mansion (copy)

Gov. Henry McMaster went to war against masks on Wednesday, declaring the CDC's recommendation that everyone continue to wear masks in crowds and indoors "absurd" and "totally unreasonable" and calling on local governments and schools to end mask mandates. Seanna Adcox/Staff

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster has never been as aggressive as we’d like about using his authority to help fight COVID-19, but by today’s political standards, he’s been generally responsible.

He hasn’t been a COVID denier, and he spent much of the past year modeling good mask behavior, urging people to mask up and even, for a time, urging local governments to enact their own mandates.

That's been hugely important because one thing we've learned is that while sending everyone home certainly slows the spread of COVID, wearing masks and keeping a respectable distance in public can do nearly as much good, without the devastating damage to our economy and our children.

Even Mr. McMaster’s premature order lifting mask requirements in restaurants and state government buildings acknowledged the importance of masks. 

But all of that changed on Wednesday, when the governor declared that it was time to be done with this whole COVID thing: that there’s “no reason” for cities and counties to continue to require masks and that parents, not school districts, should decide whether their children wear masks in the schools that our state now (appropriately) requires to offer in-class instruction five days a week.

He even called it “absurd” and “totally unreasonable” for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to continue calling for fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors and in outdoor crowds.

The CDC’s guidelines are only that — guidelines, which carry no force of law. So if our governor wasn't precisely denying that vaccinated people need to wear a mask anymore, he was doing his best to give that impression.

Unless he has an epidemiological background that he’s somehow managed to hide through four decades in public service, and unless he’s been staying up every night reviewing the latest scientific data, he is not qualified to make such a sweeping statement. Neither, by the way, are we. And neither are the vast majority of you, no matter which side you come down on.

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And in making such a statement, he was lending his voice to the fringe effort to delegitimize one of our essential institutions. One that, with nuanced exceptions in both cases, by and large has taken a consistent approach to COVID-19 across two administrations that had nearly diametrically opposed views of the pandemic.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the governor would threaten to overrule the decisions of elected city and county councils and state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman and force even more South Carolinians to retreat to their homes if they want to protect themselves and their families from the waning but still quite present risk of infection with a deadly virus.

Yes, we do know, as Mr. McMaster noted, that even at the height of the pandemic, it was safer for kids to be in school than out in the community. But that was precisely because the schools were the one place they were all required to wear a mask, and keep their distance.

As for his complaint that South Carolinians are “pent up” and that “there’s no reason” for cities and counties to “hold them back anymore,” we’re not aware of any S.C. governments that require anything more than mask wearing in public places, which doesn’t prevent anybody from going anywhere.

The COVID deniers will applaud the governor’s diatribe. But if the few remaining government mask requirements are removed, a lot of other people will become a lot more hesitant about returning to normal life. And if businesses take the governor's complaint about “absurd” and “totally unreasonable” mask requirements as a reason to lift their own, even more people will pull back to their cloistered existence. And our economy will suffer.

About a third of South Carolinians have been vaccinated, and most no longer have to struggle to get a vaccination appointment. But there are still thousands of people getting their first dose every day, and thousands more getting their second dose, and most people aren’t considered fully protected until two weeks after the second dose of a two-dose regimen. So even if our only goal is to protect the individuals who want to be protected from infection, we’re close — a few weeks? maybe a couple of months? — but we are not yet at the place where everyone we encounter has either been vaccinated or made a deliberate decision not to be vaccinated.

India thought it had weathered the worst of the pandemic last year. Deaths and infections plateaued, and the government declared victory and encouraged people to shed their masks and return to their festivals and election rallies. Today much of that country is in lockdown, as the hospitals struggle to find oxygen supplies and bodies pile up outside crematoriums.

No, we’re not India. Half of the U.S. adult population is vaccinated — compared to less than 2% in India. But India’s early victory declaration created an opening for mutations that are making it easier for the virus to spread and to evade antibodies, be they from a previous infection or a vaccine. That’s what we need to avoid here. It’s what we’re so close to avoiding here. And it’s an effort that our governor seems determined to sabotage.

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