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Richland County will require COVID masks in schools and businesses, joining Columbia

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A sign outside the Richland County government buildings advises visitors of COVID-19 protocols on March 19, 2021. The county will consider whether to reinstate its mask requirement during a meeting Sept. 14.

COLUMBIA — Masks are required again throughout unincorporated Richland County in businesses, restaurants, schools and day cares.

The rule takes effect Sept. 15 after an emergency vote by Richland County Council on Sept. 14.  

The county joins Columbia and the Lexington County cities of West Columbia and Cayce in returning to mask requirements. Forest Acres also passed a mask requirement effective Sept. 15, and the town of Blythewood expects to vote on one soon, Mayor Bryan Franklin said.

Richland School District One has maintained a mask requirement for students, employees and visitors while the S.C. Supreme Court decides a mask case brought by the Richland Two School District.

Richland County's mandate mimics language from Columbia's order in requiring masks in schools, written to emphasize that city and county fire officials will enforce mask-wearing and not school administrators, teachers or other employees.

The state Supreme Court shot down a school mask requirement passed by Columbia leaders in August as conflicting with a state budget amendment that says money state lawmakers budgeted for the current year can't be used to enact, enforce or announce mask mandates.

Violating the county ordinance by not wearing a mask in commercial establishments is a civil violation and carries a possible $25 fine. Employers who don't require employees to wear a mask could face a $100 fine.

Parents of children who refuse to wear a mask could be warned or cited with a $25 fine. 

"I want us to take this very seriously," County Councilwoman Gretchen Barron said before the vote. "As we think about doing what is right, let’s think about the young people; let’s think about our children."

In Richland County, 52 percent of eligible residents are fully vaccinated. State health officials classify the county as having a high rate of the virus, with 1,000 new cases per 100,000 people during the two-week period ending Sept. 12.

County leaders are considering a vaccine requirement for the some 2,500 people employed by the local government and whether there should be mandatory testing for those who refuse the vaccine.

The county's first responders and utility workers received $5,000 stipends as hazard pay for working with the public throughout the pandemic. Other employees who worked in person during the pandemic received $2,500 and county officials will consider another level of bonuses for those who worked partially remote. 

The extra money was paid from the county's federal relief dollars.

The council voted 8-2 to require masks. Councilmen Bill Malinowski and Joe Walker voted against the rule after both first tried to defer the vote and then asked that it include an exception for those who had already been vaccinated, a request that was voted down.

Walker said those who have followed public health guidance and received the vaccine shouldn't be punished with the "taxation that really should be borne by those who are refusing the treatment."

Barron and County Council Chairman Paul Livingston said that vaccinated people can still spread the virus and that masks protect children not yet eligible to receive the shot.

State health officials have recommended that everyone wear masks inside schools, regardless of their vaccination status.

Reach Stephen Fastenau at 803-365-3235. Follow him on Twitter @StephenFastenau.

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