COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster is lifting his mask mandate for state buildings and restaurants and telling state employees still working from home to come back to their office.
McMaster's March 5 update means the Republican governor is no longer requiring face coverings to be worn in state buildings, by restaurant employees or by diners, who were previously ordered to cover up while not eating or drinking. But that doesn't mean people can ditch their masks, as local ordinances and businesses' own policies still apply.
He also directed all state agency leaders to quickly transition to normal operations. Each must submit a plan to the Department of Administration to "expeditiously return" all employees to their workplace full time. It's unclear how many still work from home.
"Now that the majority of South Carolinians are eligible to receive the vaccine and infections and hospitalizations have dropped significantly, state agency heads may safely bring back the last group of state employees working remotely," McMaster said.
Starting March 8, an additional 2.7 million South Carolinians become eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, newly including people ages 55 to 64, those with certain underlying health problems and disabilities, and employees who must work in person and can't socially distance while on the job. That will bring the total eligible to about 4 million in a state of roughly 5 million people.
So far, about 792,000 South Carolinians have received at least the first of two necessary shots; 54 percent of them have received both doses, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
McMaster's latest executive order removes some of the state's last COVID-19 restrictions, a week after he announced late-night alcohol sales could resume and gatherings of more than 250 people no longer need special permission.
It also comes days after the GOP governors of Texas and Mississippi announced ends to their statewide mask mandates — moves blasted by President Joe Biden as "Neanderthal thinking."
Similarly, state Senate Democrats called it reckless for McMaster to rescind mask requirements in restaurants.
"In order to score political points, he is racing to strip away what few safeguards were in place to protect our state," reads the statement by the Senate Democratic Caucus. "Under the false guise of protecting personal liberties, which were never being violated, he is making reckless decisions. This is no way to lead in a time of crisis."
The Democrats accused the GOP governor of continuing to "ignore scientific evidence" as South Carolinians continue to die.
Nearly 8,700 South Carolinians have died with COVID-19 over the past year; 94 percent of them were 55 and older, according to DHEC data.
McMaster never did issue a statewide mask mandate, calling it unenforceable, even though he frequently pleaded with South Carolinians to wear masks to protect themselves and others. His repeated refusal drew criticism from people in both parties.
Despite mounting pressure, he didn't even require face coverings in state offices until Aug. 5, after he called on more city and county governments to pass their own rules, which marked a change from him passively saying they could.
His latest order strikes that encouragement altogether. Language in previous orders that urged local governments to enact "narrowly tailored" mask mandates doesn't exist in the update.
It comes a day after DHEC Director Edward Simmer told reporters the state's still a long way from getting enough South Carolinians vaccinated to return to a pre-pandemic normalcy without masks and social distancing.
That will require at least 70 percent of residents 16 and older being immunized. The goal will grow to 3½ million to 4 million people — roughly the number of adults in the state — once vaccines are authorized for children under 16, his office clarified March 5.
Supply shortages remain the biggest obstacle for vaccinations. DHEC officials said next week's shipments should help speed things up, as they'll include 41,400 doses of the newly authorized Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires just one shot.
Simmer said he agreed with McMaster's timing to let bars serve past 11 p.m. again and no longer require a special permit for gatherings exceeding 250 people. But he stressed that people still need to wear masks, avoid crowds and socially distance.
"Those make sense to do now," when looking at decreasing hospitalizations and case counts, but only if people behave responsibly, he said.
"If people look at those changes as an opportunity to go to the bars and not wear their masks and not take precautions, then we're going to have problems," he told reporters.