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S.C. schools likely to close through April because of virus

COLUMBIA — South Carolina schools will likely be closed through at least April because of the new coronavirus, the governor announced Tuesday.

State health officials reported two additional deaths from COVID-19 and the Spoleto Festival USA canceled its 2020 season also on Tuesday.

Gov. Henry McMaster didn't issue an order closing schools through April, but said he and state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman see little choice but to keep schools closed for four more weeks for the safety of students, teachers and the public.

“We understand that the prospect of schools remaining closed for an extended period of time places stress and strain on parents and children. Rest assured, if there is any way to safely open our schools earlier, we will do that,” McMaster said in a statement.

Schools were first closed March 16. If they can't reopen before the end of April, students will miss six weeks in the classroom along with a week of spring break that schools already had in place. School districts are now having students access lessons online or sending packets of work to homes on school buses.

“Our dedicated teachers and school administrators have done a tremendous job in making it possible for our students to learn at home,” McMaster said.

Also on Tuesday, organizers of the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston canceled the 2020 season of opera, dance, theater and music set to begin May 22.

Technical staff and artists were scheduled to begin arriving by late April and organizers said they would follow guidelines from health experts against large gatherings.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg urged City Council on Tuesday to pass what he called a “stay at home” ordinance during an emergency meeting later in the day.

The proposal isn't much different than what is currently in place around the state with a long list of essential businesses that are exempt like grocery stores and pharmacies.

“Let’s be safe. Let’s be smart. Let’s stay at home unless we absolutely need to,” Tecklenburg said.

But the mayor did sound the alarm that Charleston may be running out of time to avoid thousands of cases and overwhelmed hospitals unless people isolate themselves and change their habits.

"This moment — with the pandemic still in the earliest part of the acceleration phase — is our last, best chance to keep that tragedy from happening here in our city," Tecklenburg said.

Two additional deaths from the virus were reported Tuesday in Florence County and Horry County, raising the state's death toll to seven.

About three-quarters of South Carolina's 46 counties have at least one COVID-19 case. Laurens County is the most populous county without a case reported. Cases have now been reported both at Fort Jackson near Columbia and Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter.

The state had more than 340 coronavirus cases as of Tuesday afternoon's daily update, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The virus causes only minor flu-like symptoms in most people, who recover in a matter of weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death in some, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health problems. Severe cases are often only able to breathe with respirators.

State parks in South Carolina are closing Wednesday and Thursday as officials figure out and implement new policies to help control the spread of the coronavirus.

Most of the 47 state parks across South Carolina were busier than usual over the weekend with a combination of nice spring weather and people who wanted to get outdoors after a week of social distancing from COVID-19.

But that led to large groups congregating in some places that had to be broken up by police.

McMaster signed an executive order Monday allowing law enforcement to break up groups of three or more. Local sheriffs Tuesday echoed the governor's insistence they would use discretion and not go around patrolling for groups.

“This directive is concentrated towards individuals who might pose a health risk and are purposely disregarding the dangers of COVID-19,” Greenvile County Sheriff Hobart Lewis said in a statement.

An opinion issued Tuesday from the state Attorney General's Office reminded law enforcement that some events are constitutionally protected gatherings such as religious meetings, weddings or political events.

“In case of conflict between the statute and fundamental constitutional liberties , those liberties must prevail,” the opinion said.

To help its customers economically hurt by the virus, a South Carolina utility is giving back security deposits.

The Berkeley Electric Cooperative calls it a “pandemic stimulus” and said in a statement that it will return $4.8 million in fees paid when electric service is started to its nearly 34,000 customers.

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Trump looks at easing curbs

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Tuesday he is hoping the United States will be reopened by Easter as he weighs how to relax nationwide social-distancing guidelines to put some workers back on the job during the coronavirus outbreak.

Trump's optimism contradicted the warnings of some public health officials who called for stricter — not looser — restrictions on public interactions. But federal officials suggested that advisories could be loosened in areas not experiencing widespread infection.

And congressional and White House officials said Tuesday they were closing out final details of unprecedented legislation to rush sweeping aid to businesses and workers facing ruin from the coronavirus pandemic.

After days of pressure, unusual partisanship in a crisis, and intense haggling over the fine print, negotiators appeared almost done with a nearly $2 trillion bill to respond to what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called "the most serous threat to Americans' health in over a century and quite likely the greatest risk to America's jobs and prosperity that we've seen since the Great Depression.”

With lives and the economy hanging in the balance, Trump said he was already looking toward easing the advisories that have sidelined workers, shuttered schools and led to a widespread economic slowdown.

"I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter," he said during a Fox News virtual town hall. Easter is just over two weeks away — April 12.

"Wouldn't it be great to have all of the churches full?" Trump said in a subsequent interview. "You'll have packed churches all over our country."

And as scientists warned the worst is yet to come — with hospital systems tested beyond their capacity and health workers sidelined by exposure — Trump addressed the nation, saying he was beginning "to see the light at the end of the tunnel."

When the 15-day period ends next Monday, Trump said, "We'll assess at that time and we'll give it some more time if we need a little more time, but we need to open this country up." He added, "We have to go back to work, much sooner than people thought."

Trump's Easter target was not immediately embraced by Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator for the White House task force, who indicated any move would have to be guided by data still being collected. She suggested that public health professionals could recommend a general easing, while pushing for local restrictions to remain in the hardest-hit areas.

Trump's comments came even as White House officials urged people who have left New York City amid the outbreak to self-quarantine for 14 days after their departure, owing to the widespread rate of infection in the metro area.

Health experts have made clear that unless Americans continue to dramatically limit social interaction — staying home from work and isolating themselves — the number of infections will overwhelm the health care system, as it has in parts of Italy, leading to many more deaths. While the worst outbreaks are concentrated in certain parts of the country, such as New York, experts warn that the highly infectious disease is certain to spread.

The U.S. is now more than a week into an unprecedented 15-day effort to encourage all Americans to drastically scale back their public activities. The guidelines, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are voluntary, but many state and local leaders have issued mandatory restrictions in line with, or even tighter than, those issued by the CDC.

On Monday, the U.S. saw its biggest jump yet in the death toll from the virus, with more than 650 American deaths now attributed to COVID-19. Trump's comments come after dire warnings by officials in hard-hit areas. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo sounded his most dire warning yet about the coronavirus pandemic Tuesday, saying the infection rate in New York is doubling about every three days and the state could be as close as two weeks away from a crisis that sees 40,000 people in intensive care.

Such a surge would overwhelm hospitals, which now have just 3,000 intensive care unit beds statewide.

Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee postponed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics until the summer of 2021 at the latest, acting on the recommendation of Japan's prime minister.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and congressional leaders engaged in final negotiations after a tumultuous but productive day on Monday. While the two sides have resolved many issues in the sweeping package, some sticking points remained. A Senate vote appeared likely on Wednesday, with a House vote to follow.

"We're trying to finalize all the documents, going through a lot of complicated issues, and we're making a lot of progress," Mnuchin said.

At issue is an unprecedented economic rescue package that would give direct payments to most Americans, expanded unemployment benefits, and a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home. One of the last issues to close concerned $500 billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries.

A one-time payment of $1,200 per person, or $3,000 for a family of four, would go directly to the public.

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44 new virus cases in S.C.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is investigating 44 additional cases of the coronavirus.

This brings the total number statewide to 342 cases in 36 counties.

No additional cases have been announced in Orangeburg County, which has eight confirmed cases so far. Calhoun County has one and Bamberg County has no reported cases.

“As the number of cases and community spread expectedly increase in our state, we reiterate the importance of taking daily prevention practices to protect yourself and your community,” said Dr. Jonathan Knoche, DHEC physician.

“We all have the responsibility to protect ourselves, our families, friends and community,” he said.

The new positive cases include:

• Aiken County: 1 case

• Anderson County: 1 case

• Beaufort County: 1 case

• Charleston County: 5 cases

• Chesterfield County: 1 case

• Clarendon County: 1 case

• Darlington County: 1 case

• Dorchester County: 1 case

• Florence County: 2 cases

• Greenville County: 8 cases

• Horry County: 3 cases

• Jasper County: 1 case

• Kershaw County: 4 cases

• Marlboro County: 1 case

• Richland County: 4 cases

• Spartanburg County: 1 case

• Sumter County: 4 cases

• York County: 4 cases

Individuals with signs of illness are asked to stay at home and not attend public gatherings.

South Carolinians are encouraged to monitor for symptoms, practice social distancing, avoid touching frequently touched items (like doorknobs and handrails), and regularly wash their hands, especially after being in a public place.

“While we reiterate the importance of taking daily precautions to prevent spread, we want to make sure South Carolinians are also taking steps to address the feelings of stress and anxiety that arise in this type of prolonged situation,” Knoche said. “Our partners at the Department of Mental Health have resources available to help, and we continue to provide guidance for coping with stress on DHEC’s COVID-19 webpage.”

Visit scdmh.net for stress, anxiety and mental health resources from the S.C. Department of Mental Health. DHEC continues to provide new and updated guidance about COVID-19 at scdhec.gov/COVID19.

Anyone with concerns about their health should reach out to their health care provider or use the telehealth services provided by several health care systems. For telehealth options and the latest information about DHEC’s COVID-19 response efforts, please visit scdhec.gov/COVID-19.

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18-year-old shot, killed; information sought in Holly Hill death

A Holly Hill man was shot to death just outside of the town limits on Monday.

The Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the 18-year-old’s death.

The Orangeburg County Coroner’s Office has not yet released the victim’s name.

A concerned citizen called 911 around 9:24 p.m. to report an unresponsive male driver in a vehicle parked on Rush Street, according to a sheriff’s office incident report.

The concerned citizen said the vehicle came down Rush Street from the railroad tracks.

Orangeburg County EMS arrived on the scene and determined the 18-year-old didn’t have any vital signs.

Investigators located a spent shell casing near the 1300 block of Rush Street, the report states.

A wrecker towed a gray Chevrolet Impala bearing paper tags to the county’s crime scene lab.

Officers from the Eutawville and Holly Hill police departments assisted at the scene.

If anyone has information about the incident, they are asked to call Crimestoppers at 1-888-CRIME-SC. Callers don’t have to give their names.