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What you need to know: Details on Aiken's new mask rules

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Aiken City Council, Ed Woltz, Presentation (copy)

Aiken City Council member Ed Woltz listens to a man speak Thursday night.

The City of Aiken's new mask rules went into effect at noon Friday, but what are the details?

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Aiken City Council approved a new ordinance Thursday requiring a face covering be worn in retail and commercial establishments within the city limits, with several exceptions.

"... In order to protect, preserve, and promote the general health, safety and welfare and the peace and order of the community, the City of Aiken is taking steps to try to protect the citizens and employees of the City of Aiken from increased risk of exposure," reads verbiage in the ordinance.

The exact termination date of the mask requirement is open ended and unknown, as the ordinance is worded to automatically expire upon the issuance of a resolution by City Council declaring that COVID-19 is no longer a serious threat to the public health of Aiken residents or if the COVID-19 state of emergency declared by S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster is rescinded, whichever event is earlier. 

Separate from the city's ordinance, face coverings also are required to be worn in all food service or restaurant establishments in compliance with the emergency restrictions set forth in the governor's Executive Order No. 2020-63.

Rules and fines

A face covering is defined as "a uniform piece of cloth, fabric, or other material that securely covers a person's nose and mouth and remains affixed in place without the use of one's hands," according to the ordinance. "Face coverings include, but are not limited to, bandanas, medical masks, cloth masks, scarves and gaiters, provided that they are worn such that they securely cover the person's nose and mouth."

According to the new rule, all customers in restaurants and retail shops are required to wear face coverings while inside the enclosed area of any retail establishment, and all retail establishments must require staff to wear face coverings while working in areas open to the general public and areas in which interactions with other staff are likely in which social distancing of at least 6 feet cannot be observed.

The ordinance states "retail establishment" is defined as any retail business, organization, establishment, or facility open to the public within the city, including without limitation: grocery stores, convenience stores, and any other establishment engaged in the retail sale of non-prepared food; commercial stores engaged in the retail sale of goods or services to the public including without limitation sporting goods stores; furniture and home furnishings stores; clothing, shoe and clothing-accessory stores; jewelry, luggage and leather goods stores; department stores; hardware and home improvement stores; book, craft and music stores; florists and flower stores; and all other stores that sell supplies for household consumption or use; pharmacies and other stores that sell medications or medical supplies; alcoholic beverage stores; and laundromats.

Businesses subject to the ordinance are required to post appropriate signage at each public entrance informing anyone entering the building of the face covering requirement, and the operator of the business shall ensure that all people entering the building are in compliance, according to the ordinance.

"Failure by customers to comply with this ordinance could result in a charge of misdemeanor trespassing as defined in South Carolina Code Section 16-11-520," according to the ordinance. "... Failure by customers to comply with this ordinance could result in a civil fine of $25 per violation."

The Aiken Department of Public Safety responds to mask complaints and can be reached at its non-emergency line at 803-642-7620. 

The police department's goal is to encourage compliance and most instances have been resolved just by educating subjects involved on what the ordinance entails. 

Exceptions

Children under 5 do not have to wear masks. And there are several exceptions to the city's mask rule.

Face coverings will not be required under the following:

• In outdoor or unenclosed areas of retail establishments in which social distancing of at least 6 feet is possible and observed.

• For people whose religious beliefs prevent them from wearing a face covering.

• For those who cannot wear a face covering due to a medical or behavioral condition.

• In Aiken County Public School District K-12 facilities located in the city limits.

• In private, individual offices.

• When complying with directions of law enforcement officers.

• In settings where it is not practical or feasible to wear a face covering, including when obtaining goods or services such as the receipt of: dental services, barbering services, beautician services or while swimming.

• While doing outdoor physical activity.

• Police officers, firefighters or other first responders when not practical or engaged in a public safety matter of an emergency nature, or persons engaged in the repair or maintenance of infrastructure.

• While exclusively with members of a family in the same household, and no person other than such family or household is within the same enclosed area.

How it passed

Members of the Aiken City Council approved the new ordinance Thursday after the city's previous emergency ordinance requiring face coverings expired Nov. 16. 

Mask rules were first instituted in Aiken over the summer; they were renewed mid-September with an extension of the emergency ordinance. A two-thirds vote was needed each time. A supermajority vote was not necessary for the new, regular ordinance.

Thursday's final vote on the mask mandate passed 5-2 with council members Gail Diggs, Ed Woltz, Lessie Price, Andrea Gregory and Mayor Rick Osbon voting for approval, and council members Kay Brohl and Ed Girardeau voting against. 

Both Brohl and Girardeau have taken issue with what they see as government overreach or unnecessary intervention. Girardeau also disagreed with the $25 fine.

Thursday's City Council meeting was contentious, with City Council members hearing from residents on both sides of the issue.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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 writers Colin Demarest and Matthew Enfinger contributed to this article.

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