At long last, South Carolina has seen significant improvements in fighting COVID-19 and has made enough progress in administering COVID-19 vaccines such that Governor Henry McMaster issued an executive order on May 11, 2021 (May 11 Executive Order) lifting and lightening many of the emergency measures that have addressed the risks associated with COVID-19.
Lifting of Government Face Mask Mandates. The most significant aspect of the May 11 Executive Order involves the lifting of face mask mandates that had been imposed by counties, municipalities, or political subdivisions of the state. Governor McMaster had previously declined to issue a statewide mandate, but instead issued limited mandates related to state government offices and to restaurants. During this same time period, counties, municipalities, or political subdivisions of the State were allowed to issue their own measures to require face masks. However, under the May 11 Executive Order, Governor McMaster rescinded the mandates imposed by counties, municipalities, or political subdivisions of the State. Buildings controlled by the legislature and judicial branches, along with private businesses, are still permitted to impose restrictions such as mandatory mask wearing if needed.
Student Opt-Out of Public School Face Mask Mandates. The May 11 Executive Order also allows the parents or legal representatives of students to opt out of any face mask requirement imposed by a public school. In addition, DHEC’s Director of Public Health is authorized to issue a statewide standing order to allow for the voluntary testing of students, teachers, and staff at public schools.
Vaccine Passports. The subject of “Vaccine Passports” was addressed in the May 11 Executive Order, and prohibits State agencies and political subdivisions from requiring a “Vaccine Passport” (evidence of vaccination status) in order to enter a governmental building or to receive services. Healthcare-related settings were excluded from this prohibition, as were buildings controlled by the legislature and judicial branches, along with private businesses.
Enforcement Powers. Of note is the fact that law enforcement offices are still permitted to disperse any groups of three or more people (unless authorized or in their homes) if law enforcement determines the gathering could pose a threat to public health. The May 11 Executive Order also authorized law enforcement officers to take whatever other actions deemed necessary to maintain order under the continuing State of Emergency related to COVID-19, authorizes state, county, and city officials to enforce the provisions of the May 11 Executive Order (or prior or future Orders), and authorizes the South Carolina Department of Environmental Health to utilize its emergency powers as necessary.
Measures Related to Critical Healthcare Services. As to the provisions of South Carolina Regulations 61-15 (Certificate of Need “CON”) and 61-16 (Minimum Standards for Licensing Hospitals and Institutional General Infirmaries), the May 11 Executive Order suspends certain monetary threshold in the CON laws and sections of the South Carolina Health Plan (governing CON activities) to allow for capital expenditures and the acquisition of medical equipment necessary to address the progression of COVID-19 and to allow for the temporary provision of health services for COVID-19 patients. The laws governing the uses of unlicensed beds or space or conversion of space in hospitals are also relaxed during the pandemic, and the May 11 Executive Order directs the Adjutant General to continue to coordinate efforts between the South Carolina National Guard and hospitals or other healthcare providers as needed to respond to the pandemic.
Back to Business for State Agencies. The May 11 Executive Order directs all state agencies to immediately transition back to normal operations, requiring plans to expeditiously return all non-essential employees and staff to the workplace on a full-time basis. In addition, counties, municipalities, and other political subdivisions are prohibited from closing facilities occupied by state employees.
Allowing Curbside Sales of Beer and Wine. Finally, the May 11 Executive Order directs the state to facilitate “social distancing” in restaurants and retail settings, and specifically allows curbside pickup for off-premises consumption or the delivery of beer and wine.
Governor Encourages Individuals Who Are Not Fully Vaccinated to Wear Face Masks and Encourages All Eligible South Carolinians to Get Vaccinated. While the face mask mandates are being lifted, Governor McMaster continues to encourage all individuals who are not fully vaccinated to continue to wear face masks. The Governor also encourages everyone who is eligible but not yet fully vaccinated yet to get vaccinated.
In sum, South Carolina’s State of Emergency related to COVID-19 continues, but the state is recognizing the significant improvements the state has made in fighting COVID-19 and the progress in administering COVID-19 vaccines. The pandemic is not over yet, but the time has come to begin transitioning to a more normal work and home life.