COLUMBIA — In the year since the COVID-19 outbreak began, Gov. Henry McMaster has issued 26 declarations of emergency, each lasting 15 days because of a quirk in state law.
The latest declaration ends days from now and McMaster will issue order No. 27.
Some South Carolinians might wonder why the state remains in a state of emergency when public life is beginning to return to normal.
State restrictions — including limits on dining, mass gatherings and nursing home visits — have ended, and COVID-19 cases have dropped amid the rise in vaccinations, now eligible to anyone 16 and older.
While many equate gubernatorial pandemic orders with government lockdowns, they serve a wider, behind-the-scenes purpose even after state constraints are gone, according to state officials.
The ongoing emergency declarations for the COVID-19 pandemic keep federal aid flowing to South Carolina, put National Guard troops on duty to help with the vaccine rollout and allow state agencies to coordinate mass purchases that cut virus-fighting costs.
What the latest state of emergency order, issued March 23, doesn’t do is mandate social distancing anywhere or restrict anyone’s movement — unless they want to visit an inmate. The lone restriction left bars visitation in South Carolina’s prisons and jails.
All 50 states remain under an emergency declaration, as does the nation as a whole.
“It can be very serious, but it’s also something that enables us to do our jobs most effectively,” Derrec Becker, spokesman for the S.C. Emergency Management Division, said April 1 about the emergency orders, which keeps his agency activated to coordinate state and federal aid, both in dollars and manpower.
Mass purchases for state agencies and schools have included protective equipment and testing supplies.
“There are all these operational things going on people don’t see but get the benefits,” Becker said.
Those include nearly 600 National Guard troops still helping across the state with COVID-19 testing and vaccine efforts. The number on active duty has stayed fairly steady since McMaster first declared a pandemic emergency March 13, 2020, Becker said.
Other provisions kept in place by the order include waiving some trucking regulations to help speed the delivery of medical supplies, allowing pharmacists to make emergency prescription refills, and enabling emergency licenses for professionals, contractors and volunteers coming from another state to help out.
It also keeps the state’s anti-price-gouging law in effect. And it enhances officers’ authority to disperse crowds and keep order, specifying a $100 fine and up to 30 days in jail for anyone who refuses to comply, but that section has seen little to no use.
For the state prisons agency, McMaster’s orders have kept visitors out in an effort to mitigate COVID-19’s spread from the outside to the locked-up population. They’ve also enabled National Guard troops to assist as needed, from conducting medical checks to preparing meals when the regular cooks were in quarantine.
Guardsmen will also help vaccinate prisoners, Corrections spokeswoman Chrysti Shain said.
The ban on visits will remain through at least the end of April, when agency officials will re-evaluate the risk, she said.
Sign up for updates!
Get the latest political news from The Post and Courier in your inbox.
Across the country, the actions Republican and Democratic governors have taken in their orders have varied widely.
Some South Carolinians complain McMaster went too far in his restrictions, while others complain he did far too little and lifted what he did mandate too quickly. The state lagged other states in issuing a stay-at-home order and was among the nation’s first to lift restrictions.
Lifting emergency declarations altogether won’t bring a return to pre-pandemic normalcy.
Local requirements remain in effect across the state, such as masks requirements in Columbia, Charleston and Greenville, as do policies set by businesses and churches, citing safety guidelines from state and federal health officials.
Making all of those go away will take getting millions more South Carolinians fully immunized.
Less than 20 percent of South Carolinians ages 16 and older — all of those eligible for a shot, as of March 30 — have completed the vaccination process, according to the state’s public health agency.
Meanwhile, McMaster is expected to continue issuing emergency declarations for the foreseeable future. Under state law written for natural disasters like hurricanes, not health pandemics, each automatically expires in 15 days.
“Unfortunately, a state of emergency has become synonymous with restrictions for some people because of the outrageous, draconian measures other states have taken,” said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes. “But we have no restrictions in place in South Carolina and remain under a state of emergency for many reasons.
“One of those reasons is that — just like during a hurricane response — it allows all of the state’s agencies and resources to be coordinated in a way that bolsters the state’s response to the pandemic.”
The orders have given McMaster far more authority than South Carolina governors normally have in a state where the Legislature holds most of the power. And by continuing to issue them, he retains the power to clamp down again. But he’s made it abundantly clear he will not do so, even amid criticism as cases spiked after the winter holidays.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, McMaster’s rolling orders closed schools and beaches, shuttered many businesses and eventually — on April 6, 2020, when he became the last governor east of the Mississippi to do so — told people to stay home, unless going to work or a business deemed essential.
Changes to subsequent orders largely undid restrictions, with exceptions in July and August when he added an 11 p.m. curfew for alcohol sales, required mask-wearing in restaurants and state offices, and turned safety guidelines on indoor dining into mandates.
But those too have been undone. With the exception of inmate visitations, the last of his restrictions were lifted with his March 5 order, which ended his limited mask mandate and told state employees still working from home to “expeditiously return” to their offices.
Nearly 9,200 South Carolinians have died with COVID-19 over the last year. The numbers of daily deaths and newly diagnosed cases have steadily declined since January, when seniors became eligible for limited vaccine supplies, according to data from the state’s public health agency.
South Carolina ranks 19th nationwide in the number of deaths per capita, slightly better than neighboring Georgia at 18th. States posting the highest death rates are New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts, in that order. Florida, which Democrats nationwide have criticized as too open, ranks 27th, while California, among the most locked down, ranks 29th, as of April 2, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.