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Aiken City Council to consider rescinding mask rules as pandemic lingers

Rick Osbon, Masked, ACC Special Meeting

Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon wears a mask at an outdoor forum in 2020. (Colin Demarest/Staff)

The Aiken City Council will meet Wednesday evening to consider rescinding the city’s mask mandate, which was approved and instituted late last year as coronavirus cases surged across the U.S.

The special meeting, set for 5 p.m. at the downtown Municipal Building, was requested by Mayor Rick Osbon.

“One of the reasons we put the mask ordinance in was to help prevent an overrun of our health care providers. They’re not having an issue of being overrun with COVID. Our numbers of COVID are going down,” the mayor told the Aiken Standard. “I think this is a natural step.”

If the resolution passes Wednesday as written, citywide mask rules would expire 6 a.m. Thursday. The timeframe, though, could be amended.

A simple majority – four out of seven, if all City Council members attend – is needed to pass a resolution.

City Council member Andrea Gregory on Friday said she would “absolutely” vote in favor of nixing the mandate. She had been in contact with Osbon about the matter.

“It appears most people are in favor of just going ahead and moving forward,” Gregory explained, “and I support that.”

City Council member Gail Diggs, on the other hand, said she would not support the measure; it was too soon, she argued, and premature action could unwind hard-fought progress.

“We don’t have enough people vaccinated yet,” she said, adding, “If we were at a higher level, yes, I’d be in favor of it.”

About 31% of South Carolina residents have been fully vaccinated. COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing the disease, especially severe illness and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

City Council first enacted mask rules in July, on an emergency basis, around the time Osbon tested positive for COVID-19. The emergency policy required a supermajority vote every two months for renewal – unwieldy in the long term and susceptible to preliminary data and mercurial public opinion.

City Council installed a more enduring mask mandate in November, a divisive move meant to combat the spread of the virus ahead of the busy holiday season.

S.C. Governor Henry McMaster in a recent tweet urged municipalities to repeal their respective regulations: "Local cities and counties need to drop any remaining restrictions they have in place. It’s time to wrap this up or I will do it for them!" A memo from Aiken City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh acknowledged McMaster's threat.

Neither Aiken County nor North Augusta instituted a face-coverings requirement. Both, though, recommended the use of them.

Check back with the Aiken Standard. This article will be updated as more information becomes available.

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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