Columbia city leaders approve state of emergency, mask mandates in city schools

Published: Aug. 5, 2021 at 9:05 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 5, 2021 at 8:31 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Columbia city council has approved Mayor Steve Benjamin’s state of emergency to require masks in schools for faculty, staff, visitors, and students ages 2-14.

The city council voted 5-1 Thursday morning in a special meeting. Councilman Daniel Rickenmann was the lone no vote, while Councilman Will Brennan was absent from the meeting.

Surrounding the ordinance is a question of if it violates a state budget proviso, which prohibits school districts from using state funding to require masks, at the risk of that funding being reduced.

Gov. Henry McMaster’s office asserted this order is in violation.

“This is another attempt to force children to wear masks in schools without a bit of consideration for a parent’s right to make that decision,” McMaster’s spokesperson wrote Wednesday when Benjamin declared the state of emergency. “State law prohibits mask mandates in public schools, and the city’s ordinance would require teachers and administrators to violate state law.”

“I hope and pray the governor supports this position,” Benjamin said after Thursday’s meeting.

Benjamin contended the state of emergency does not violate state law, as fire marshals will enforce the mandate, and city funds will pay for masks for everyone required to wear one.

“I believe we stand on very firm, solid, constitutional, and legal grounds,” the mayor said.

He also argued the proviso in the state budget does not trump the state constitution, which empowers the city to act to protect its citizens.

RELATED STORY | Columbia mayor issues state of emergency requiring masks in schools, day cares

Benjamin said the state of emergency comes in response to the recent rapid spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant, especially among children under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

“Sending children into an environment where we know that the likelihood of them potentially contracting COVID-19 because of a lack of protocols or laws that’s tried to stop us from protecting them is just — it’s foolish, it’s cold-hearted and unnecessary,” Benjamin said.

Rickenmann said he voted against the emergency order because he believes the mask requirement violates state law.

“The teachers and the staff are paid with state dollars. They’re going to have to enforce it, along with our fire marshals and so forth, so there’s a lot of questions around that,” he said.

But Rickenmann — who is running for mayor this November, with Benjamin not seeking reelection — said he does think the state legislature needs to adjust the proviso at the center of this debate.

“I think they need to address the situation that is before us today, not what was in June, and make arrangements for that. But I mean, I think it needs to be — the decision needs to be in the health providers and the experts, DHEC and hospitals and so forth, to make those decisions and work with the school district. It’s not the city’s role,” he said, adding that he believes the city should be encouraging people to wear masks in public and get vaccinated if they are eligible.

According to the city, more than 40 schools and daycares are affected by the order, with all the public schools in Richland County School District One.

“We will do everything in our power to protect the health and safety of our students and staff. That has been our priority and it continues to be our priority as we prepare for the new school year. We will encourage our students and staff to wear masks, which public health officials advise to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. We also urge everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated to get vaccinated,” Dr. Craig Witherspoon, Richland One’s superintendent, said in a statement.

Benjamin also said he “hopes and prays” there will not be a legal challenge to Columbia’s state of emergency.

“We’ve received inquiries about the City of Columbia’s mask mandate. We’re doing research and analysis of it and expect to announce something late next week,” South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said in a statement.

The state of emergency will last for at least 60 days.

Benjamin said he wants to make sure this ordinance had some accountability behind it, so he included a $100 fine that would go to district superintendents.

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