COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Curbing the spread of COVID-19 in South Carolina’s voting booths and school classrooms this fall remains up to local officials, even as infection numbers continue to climb across the state.
Health officials reported 1,870 new confirmed cases and 56 additional deaths Tuesday, the day Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Columbia to discuss reopening schools this fall.
At a roundtable with officials including South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Pence praised McMaster for his recent stance that schools should reopen for in-person classes after Labor Day, a position that has drawn criticism from school districts across the state that are crafting back-to-school plans.
Pence said public health experts have suggested the virus is less dangerous to children than adults, but data on transmission is limited. Educators in South Carolina have drawn attention to the need to first reduce the spread of the virus in the state, as well as potential health risks to school employees and communities.
Pence planned to travel later Tuesday to Charleston, where he would participate in a fundraiser with state Rep. Nancy Mace, the Republican nominee seeking to unseat freshman House Democrat Joe Cunningham in South Carolina’s 1st District.
Voters in the 1st District — and the rest of South Carolina — will have to weigh not only the candidates on their ballots but also their health at the polls this general election.
Marci Andino, executive director of the state’s election commission, called on legislative leaders in a letter Friday to expand absentee voting access and take other steps to reduce crowding and wait times at polling places for a “safe and secure” election this November. Andino pointed to the need to avoid congregating a large number of voters in one place during a pandemic, citing problems encountered by elections officials during the June primaries.
Those problems included a shortage of poll managers after many quit over health risks and were replaced with inexperienced managers, Andino wrote in the letter, obtained by the Post and Courier this week. Facility owners and managers also declined to make polling places available in the pandemic, leading to a shortage of locations, Andino wrote.
South Carolina could see more than 1 million ballots cast by mail in November, based on absentee voting numbers in the June primaries — numbers that could overwhelm elections officials, Andino wrote. She called on state Senate President Harvey Peeler and House Speaker Jay Lucas to make adjustments including allowing all voters to cast absentee ballots no matter the reason and providing officials with more time to process those ballots.
Voters in the state usually have to provide a specific reason for voting absentee, such as being 65 or older or having a physical disability. State lawmakers agreed in May to allow all voters to cast absentee ballots in this year’s June primary, but have not done so for the general election. The legislature is not scheduled to meet until September.
The state has now seen 73,101 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,203 deaths since the beginning of the outbreak. Hospital data reported by the state Tuesday showed hospital beds at 84% capacity, with 9,598 beds in use. 1,593 of those hospitalized were COVID-19 patients.