FILE - South Carolina Capitol

South Carolina Capitol in Columbia, S.C.

(The Center Square) – The South Carolina House has approved a bill that blocks any state entity from accepting federal funds to impose a mask or COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

House Bill 3126 was sent to the Senate on Friday.

The House amended the bill Thursday to eliminate private businesses from the discussion, creating a bill that blocks state entities from taking federal funds to institute the mandates, among other rules.

The bill allows individuals who lost their jobs because of refusing a COVID-19 vaccination to be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, pointed out in discussion of the bill that the House did not have a fiscal report regarding the cost of the unemployment decision before a vote was taken. The bill was approved on its third reading Friday by a 60-25 vote.

“This is just not a good way to go about passing legislation,” Ott said during earlier discussion. “Maybe you don’t have to go home and answer tough questions on why you cast votes. I think some of us in this room actually do.”

The bill also prevents the state from firing first responders for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccination.

Rep. Chris Wooten, R-Lexington, said he is a small business owner who doesn’t want to step into small businesses and tell them what to do, but he said it is important to protect the 30,000 police and firefighters in the state who protect 5.5 million South Carolinians.

Wooten said there is one police officer per 450 residents and one firefighter per 315 residents.

“We already have a shortage of first responders, and do we really want to take a chance on losing 20 to 25 percent more of our first responders at this point?” Wooten said. “Can we afford to do that?”

The bill also says private federal contractors can test for COVID-19 instead of being required to be vaccinated.

“The General Assembly holds that a federal vaccine mandate is unconstitutional and shall not be enforced by this State,” the amended bill states. “However, if a private employer believes it is subject to the forfeiture of federal funds due to a failure to require employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, the private employer may require an unvaccinated employee to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.”

The bill proposes to appropriate $10 million from South Carolina’s Contingency Reserve Fund to the Department of Health and Environmental Control and an additional $10 million to the Medical University of South Carolina to fund COVID-19 testing for private employers.

Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, reiterated the state should stay away from legislating what private businesses are doing.

“I guess we want Amazon to take over everything,” Bamberg said. “Because I don’t know how Family Dollar and Dollar General and Buy Low and Piggly Wiggly and others … they deal with food … medical supply companies. All of these companies and businesses we have In this state. They are competing with Amazon. They are competing with other online retailers. How are they going to compete if this legislation costs them money and costs them lawsuits?”

Staff Reporter

Jon Styf is an award-winning editor and reporter who has worked in Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan in local newsrooms over the past 20 years, working for Shaw Media, Hearst and several other companies.