COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster said government-mandated mask wearing and other COVID-19 restrictions need to end in South Carolina, and he's willing to do "whatever's necessary" to put a stop to them if local officials don't do so themselves.
"It’s time to start getting back to normal. I’d ask the cities and counties if they have restrictions out there, to wrap it up," he told reporters April 28 outside the Governor's Mansion.
"I think some of them are being unreasonable, and if they need some help in removing those restrictions, I’ll be glad to help them," he added.
Whether to mask up should also be a choice — not a requirement — in schools, he said, now that all employees have had the opportunity to get vaccinated on their own or through clinics that every district arranged with a local health care provider after workers became eligible March 8.
"It is the height of ridiculosity for a school district to make that decision for the parents," McMaster said.
His comments came two days after dozens of parents protested outside the Charleston County School District, calling for its mandate to become an option.
"Those parents are exactly right," McMaster said, adding that studies showed even at the height of the pandemic that the virus largely was not spread at school and when it did, it wasn't from child to adult.
"If the parents do not want their children wearing masks, then they shouldn’t be required by the government to wear a mask," the governor said. "It’s just that simple."
School district spokesman Andy Pruitt disagreed, saying Charleston County will continue to follow the guidance of infection control specialists from the Medical University of South Carolina.
South Carolina is among just a handful of states where every school is offering a full return to the classroom. Only a few of the state's 79 districts hadn't already provided the option for all grades before legislators passed a law setting an April 26 deadline.
State schools Superintendent Molly Spearman advised districts to continue following the guidelines of public health experts. However, "if the governor feels that they are no longer needed, he has the power to issue an executive order directing districts to abandon them," said her spokesman, Ryan Brown.
McMaster said he might.
He declined to be more precise, repeating only that he would do "whatever is necessary."
He also declined to specify how long he's willing to wait on local officials, saying, "That depends on what happens. But we're getting pretty close."
Unlike other states, South Carolina never had a statewide mask mandate, though McMaster encouraged local governments last year to pass their own ordinances. That encouragement officially ended when he lifted his mandate for face coverings in state buildings March 5.
More than 1.2 million South Carolinians have completed their COVID-19 vaccinations, or more than 30 percent of adults. State health officials say reaching so-called herd immunity — when enough people have immunity to prevent the virus from spreading — will require 70 percent of adults getting vaccinated.
But McMaster said the dropping rate of new cases and deaths suggest the state is getting there despite being far below that benchmark, noting many South Carolinians have natural immunity from having the virus and recovering.
Nearly 580,000 South Carolinians have tested positive for the virus over the last 13 months, and about 9,500 of them died, according to public health data.
McMaster, who is among the South Carolinians who recovered, called it "absurd" for President Joe Biden and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to continue calling for fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors, even while easing guidelines April 27 for outdoors.
"I think that's totally unreasonable," said McMaster, who got his first shot April 19.
Many local governments are already choosing not to renew their mask mandates when they expire.
The city of Charleston extended its mandate through May 13. But City Council voted April 20 to eliminate fines and the requirement to wear masks outdoors.
"The city of Charleston has worked hard to be both responsible and reasonable throughout the pandemic," said city spokesman Jack O'Toole.
The supply of vaccines in South Carolina is now greater than the demand, as many appointments go unfilled, and officials shift their strategy to convincing those who are hesitant or refusing to get a shot.
Those declining to roll up their sleeve include employees of K-12 public schools, according to a voluntary survey collected over two weeks and sent to the state education agency.
It shows the percentage of staff who had received at least a first dose by April 12 ranged from about 25 percent in Richland 1 (Columbia), Lexington-Richland 5 (Chapin), and Greenville County, the state's largest, to nearly everyone in several small districts, including Barnwell 19 (Blackville-Hilda) and Barnwell 29 (Williston-Elko). Half of Dorchester 2 employees said they'd gotten a shot, while 61 percent of Charleston County employees and two-thirds of Horry County's did, the survey shows.
"Everybody has had the opportunity to get vaccinated," McMaster said. "That was supposed to be the end of it — when everybody gets vaccinated, then we’re back to normal."
Libby Stanford contributed to this report from Charleston.