COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina senators approved $45 million in emergency funding Tuesday to fight the new coronavirus and debated whether to pass a plan to keep government operating if they can't meet enough to approve a budget.
As senators met, Gov. Henry McMaster announced he was ordering the closing of all bars and dining areas in restaurants, banning many public gatherings of more than 50 people and delaying tax deadlines to June.
The Senate Finance Committee met in a nearly empty room Tuesday and the Senate gathered in a nearly empty Statehouse later.
After getting an update on the virus and agreeing to send the emergency request to the full Senate, the committee then debated what kind of message it would send if they voted in mid-March for a proposal typically passed in June when budget negotiations appear to be running long.
On one side are senators who said they don't expect a disaster that would prevent them from meeting for months, but consider it prudent just in case for some reason a spending plan isn't in place before July 1.
"This is not waving the white flag. This is not giving up. This is taking out a very modest insurance policy," said Republican Sen. Wes Climer of Rock Hill.
On the other side were senators who said it would send the wrong message to take such a drastic step when they are trying to maintain confidence with the public.
"I do not want the state for a minute to believe that we are not going to be able to get back here, because we are. We are the government of the state of South Carolina. We have met through Civil War. We have met through depressions," Sen. Vincent Sheheen said.
The Democrat's district includes Kershaw County, which has nearly half of the 47 reported COVID-19 cases across the state. Fourteen additional cases were reported Tuesday.
The Senate delayed a final vote on the resolution, but made it so they would only need to meet one day to do it.
For most people, the new coronavirus 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.
As the Senate, wrapped up its work Tuesday, the governor announced he was closing bars and ordering all restaurants to do take out or drive-thru service only. McMaster also banned gatherings of 50 or more people in government-owned facilities.
"We know a lot of these things are going to cause problems for businesses, but the enemy we face, the enemy of this virus, is bigger than any sort of irritation or inconvenience," McMaster said.
The governor also said that he was authorizing the National Guard to prepare if necessary to help build medical structures to alleviate any crowding if hospitals become overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases.
"We're not doing this, but we're making plans," McMaster said during a news conference.
McMaster also asked that health care providers halt all elective and non-life-threatening surgical and medical procedures, freeing up supplies and equipment, as well as personnel, and requested that health insurance providers cover 100% of treatment associated with the virus.
The $45 million emergency funding proposal for the Department of Health and Environmental Control was requested by McMaster and approved 42-0 on Tuesday by the Senate. DHEC said it would spend $15 million on additional employees and overtime, $15 million on protective equipment, $5 million on lab supplies and cleaning and $2.5 million on a public education campaign, among other items.
Any extra money not spent would be returned, DHEC Director Rick Toomey said. But health officials said it is more likely health officials will need more money or alter the way they are spending the emergency money.
The House is coming back briefly Thursday to take up emergency spending matters.
Senators said it was important to come into session Tuesday and take up critical matters.
"We don't just serve in the good times We have responsibilities in the bad times," said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler of West Columbia.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP
The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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