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Aiken City Council enacts long-term mask rules as coronavirus cases surge across U.S.

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The Aiken City Council on Thursday night passed a new citywide mask mandate, a defensive – and divisive – move meant to combat the spread of coronavirus as cases in the U.S. surge once more and as the busy holiday season approaches.

The new face-coverings policy will take effect noon Friday, sooner than previously expected. Those in violation could be fined $25. 

"It just gives Public Safety some teeth," City Council member Ed Woltz said of the civil fine. The Aiken Department of Public Safety responds to mask complaints but does not actively seek them out.

Unlike the city’s earlier emergency measure, which needed a supermajority vote every two months for renewal, the latest mandate is long-term. The mask rules will end only if City Council rescinds them, acknowledging that COVID-19 no longer poses a serious public-health threat, or when S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s coronavirus-related state of emergency sunsets.

Group, TV Livestream, Aiken City Council

A group watches the Aiken City Council meeting from outside the chambers via a livestream.

 

The ordinance passed Thursday, 5-2, requires the wearing of face coverings – cloth, fabric or other material that fits snug over a person’s nose and mouth, including bandanas, scarves and gaiters – in all businesses and facilities open to the public within city limits. It defers to the governor’s decrees and other state regulations when it comes to restaurants and other food establishments.

"It would behoove restaurant owners to follow an executive order," City Council member Andrea Gregory said, "because it is the law."

Exemptions do exist. Children under 5 do not have to wear masks. And, among other things, masks aren’t required while exclusively with family members or members of the same household or while outside exercising. The mandate does not apply to public schools in the area, as the governing school board has addressed the matter on its own.

The city first instituted mask rules in July, around the same time Mayor Rick Osbon tested positive for COVID-19, the disease the virus causes.

“My own diagnosis with COVID-19, despite all my efforts to stay well by closely following all the guidelines from the CDC,” Osbon said at the time, “shows just what a tough battle we’re facing to remain open and operating even as the number of cases in our state and city rise dramatically.”

The emergency mask rules were reapplied mid-September – despite some public uproar. The rules expired at noon Monday, though, after City Council opted to not extend them. (No motion was made Nov. 12 when the matter was brought up.) The lapse was celebrated and denounced. Mask opponents cheered freedom; mask loyalists cried negligence.

Hundreds of people had contacted the city in the days leading up to Thursday’s contentious meeting. And dozens showed up to the actual meeting. Very few argued in favor of the mask policy. Many fervently argued against it. City Council members Ed Girardeau and Kay Biermann Brohl voted against the mandate, as has been the pattern. Both have taken issue with what they see as government overreach or unnecessary intervention.

"We have voted. It passed. We're all in it together now," said Girardeau, who also disagreed with the $25 fine. He added: "Let's go forward. Let's be positive. Let's be together on this."

The coronavirus spreads via respiratory droplets generated when an infected person coughs, sneezes, sings, talks or breathes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus is most commonly spread between people who are in close contact. Extended time means extended risk.

Thousands of coronavirus cases and dozens of related deaths have been confirmed in Aiken County. The death toll statewide is much higher, and things are trending noticeably upward in the Midlands. South Carolina's health department has labeled Aiken County as an area of high incidence, a metric that captures COVID-19 infection and the potential burden on health-care facilities.

Kay Brohl, Masks, Entrance

Aiken City Council member Kay Biermann Brohl, wearing a mask, approaches council chambers early Thursday night.

The CDC recommends wearing masks in public settings and where physical distancing is difficult – at grocery stories, for example.

Masks “may slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others,” the CDC has advised. “The masks recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators.”

Staff writer Matthew Enfinger contributed to this report.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the Energy Department, its NNSA, and government and politics, in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin.

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