COLUMBIA — As officials in one part of Lexington County consider reenacting a mask requirement, much of the conservative area remains — and likely will remain — free from the restrictions that public health officials stress are essential in combating the coronavirus.
Some elected leaders of this deep-red pocket of South Carolina insist that citizens can be trusted to make responsible decisions on their own, a refrain that’s become familiar as most of the state’s local governments have declined to enact a mask requirement since the pandemic began in March.
But in parts of Lexington County without mask orders — including areas where officials let earlier restrictions lapse — mounting infections have also brought renewed pressure on local mayors and councils to take action.
The town of Lexington — the county’s most populous area — is reconsidering its November decision to let its months-long mask requirement lapse. The Town Council has now signaled its support for reupping that order, covering some 17,000 residents, in a vote scheduled Dec. 21.
Another urban pocket, Irmo, has already taken that step. That was after the mayor was flooded with voicemails from constituents concerned that a lapsed mask order in the town of roughly 11,000 prompted people to pack grocery stores and other retail businesses without face coverings.
Cayce and West Columbia, two urban areas just across the Congaree River from the capital city, have mask orders covering a population of more than 27,000.
Gov. Henry McMaster has issued no statewide edict on masks, leaving the matter up to local governments. Because Lexington officials have no requirement countywide, that has left much of the area with no restrictions whatsoever. Among the state’s 46 counties, nine have countywide mandates, including Richland — Lexington’s neighbor — and Charleston.
Scott Whetstone, chairman of Lexington County Council, said he and his colleagues have no plans to consider a mandate. He noted that the more densely populated towns have orders in place, adding that he’s confident that Lexington residents are taking the pandemic seriously.
“It’s being handled responsibly without government having to step in,” Whetstone said.
At the western edge of Lexington County is Batesburg-Leesville. The town is home to the famous Shealy’s BBQ and its voters lean two-thirds Republican, according to the most recent census data.
With roughly 5,300 residents, it’s also Lexington’s most populous area without a mask requirement.
The town’s mayor, Lancer Shull, stressed that the area’s residents are spread out, and that orders only make sense for denser urban cities like Columbia.
Shull said it’s unfair to expect residents to follow the state’s patchwork of mask rules. As the head of an area incorporated in the shape of a key, Shull said invisible boundaries from town to town cause too much confusion.
He urged McMaster to take action himself.
“This really needs to come from the governor’s desk,” said Shull, who identifies as a political independent. “That’s my thought — other than wear a mask.”
Still, a spike in cases has moved other Lexington officials to act.
Lexington infections are up. While the virus has killed no fewer than 247 people in the county, nearly a third of the deaths have come since October, state health data show.
And the public health community has been clear with its position: Universal mask usage is the best way for any community to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which as of Dec. 14 has killed no fewer than 4,700 South Carolinians and infected 254,000.
State health officials have reported that communities with mask requirements were more likely to decrease their infection rates than those without the mandates.
In Lexington, the head of the area’s local hospital has stated in strong terms that local governments should enact strict measures.
“In addition to social distancing and hand washing, we know that masks are an effective tool in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said Tod Augsburger, president of Lexington Medical Center.
That’s partly what prompted officials in the town of Lexington to reconsider their decision to let the area’s mask order expire last month.
Mayor Pro Tem Hazel Livingston, Lexington’s longest-tenured council member, said she can’t recall a more difficult decision the town has had to consider. She joined the four-person majority on the seven-member council that voted on Dec. 7 to bring the mask order back. The order requires final approval by council at its next meeting Dec. 21.
Ultimately, she sided with the doctors, she said.
“They’re the ones who have to take care of everyone who is sick in Lexington,” Livingston said. “I want to do what I can to support them.”