$45M OKed for SC health to fight virus as courts suspended
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — In a nearly empty Statehouse with especially worried members voting from the balcony, the South Carolina House approved $45 million Thursday for state health officials to fight the new coronavirus.
Gov. Henry McMaster took the unheard of step of immediately signing the bill within 15 minutes of the House vote.
Hours later, the governor then signed an executive order requiring all non-essential state employees to stay home. Who falls into that category is up to agency leaders. McMaster also asked all colleges to use online learning the rest of the spring semester. The University of South Carolina announced it would delay its May graduation ceremony.
The governor urged hospitals to end all visitation except for people nearing death, two days after he closed all restaurant dining rooms and bars.
South Carolina reported an additional 21 cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, raising the state total to 81. The initial hot spot in Kershaw County reported four new patients, but now only about a third of South Carolina cases are in that county, the Department of Health and Environmental Control said in a statement.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell warned the state may soon see a spike in cases like other states and cases could double if people don't heed advice to stay away from crowds.
“We need the cooperation of every single citizen," McMaster said.
One South Carolina patient was former Gov. David Beasley, isolating himself at his Society Hill home. Beasley said in a statement he went into self-quarantine Saturday after returning from an official trip in his role running the UN's World Food Programme.
Beasley, 63, said his symptoms have been mild and he continues to work from home as his employees help him inform anyone he had contact with during his recent trip Canada.
Earlier in the day, South Carolina's current governor waited as House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Harvey Peeler ratified the emergency health funding bill immediately and walked it personally to the governor's office.
The three men joined by other lawmakers, standing several feet apart, as they showed off the bill. Then all the lawmakers left, without any idea when the General Assembly might return as legislators go home to isolate themselves as best they can from COVID-19.
Lucas suggested it would be at least two weeks before the House meets again. Peeler, a Republican from Gaffeny, said the Senate would not meet next week and they would then reassess their schedule.
The biggest looming deadline is passing a budget by June 30 amid massive uncertainty about how much money the state will lose in taxes and fees with social distancing and the shutdown of restaurants and bars.
“You can bet if we have to be back, we will be back," said Lucas, a Republican from Hartsville.
Nine members took the never-seen-before step of attending and voting from the balcony to avoid sitting shoulder to shoulder with a fellow lawmaker, including Democratic Rep. Laurie Funderburk, who lives in Camden, where more than a third of South Carolina's coronavirus cases have been reported.
The public was kept out of the second floor where the House meets.
The House approved the emergency money 120-0 after the Senate voted 42-0 on Tuesday.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control plans to spend the money on additional employees and overtime, protective equipment, lab supplies and cleaning and a public education campaign.
Unspent funds would be returned, but DHEC Director Rick Toomey warned he will probably need more over the next several weeks as the coronavirus spreads.
For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of victims recover.
Also on Thursday, South Carolina's top judge suspended all terms of court until the end of April as the state tries to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Only emergency hearings can be held over the next six weeks, and judges, who typically travel to other counties for court were required to stay in their home courthouse, South Carolina Chief Justice Don Beatty said in an order.
The chief justice also postponed foreclosure hearings and delayed evictions statewide until May 1.
After the vote, Lucas thanked members, especially the more careful ones in the balcony, for coming to Columbia to do their work. Just four members didn't attend.
“I hope God will bless you, each one of your families, and you communities," Lucas said as he gaveled out the session to some unknown date.
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