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Columbia Mayor Benjamin announces social media campaign to encourage mask-wearing

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Columbia City Council

Columbia City Councilman Sam Davis, left, and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin in 2019. Photo by John Carlos

Columbia and Richland County have, in recent weeks, each passed ordinances requiring people to wear masks in public places as cases of the novel coronavirus continue to rise.

Now Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin is touting a social media campaign that he hopes will additionally encourage mask-wearing, particularly among younger citizens.

The third-term mayor on Friday announced the #MaskUpColumbiaSC campaign. Specifically, the city is, according to a news release, offering "citizens of all ages the chance to express their individual imaginations and inspirations by wearing fun and expressive face masks, and then sharing with everyone through social media" using the #MaskUpColumbiaSC hashtag. People can also upload images of themselves wearing creative masks to the Mask Up Columbia SC website, which is being hosted by the Tapp's Outpost arts organization.

Columbia City Council passed a mask ordinance in late June as a measure to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Richland County followed suit with its own mask ordinance, which went into effect July 6. Other nearby towns, such as Cayce, West Columbia, Forest Acres and Lexington, also have each passed some form of mask measure. Various cities and counties across the state have adopted mask laws, even as Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has continued to resist a statewide mask mandate at a time when coronavirus cases are skyrocketing in South Carolina.

Benjamin said the city has seen "significant compliance" with its mask ordinance thus far. He said city code enforcement and fire marshals have only issued five citations since the city's law took effect.

"The goal is to try to suppress the incidence of COVID-19 cases, as much as we possibly can," the mayor said during a Friday news conference held virtually via Zoom. "And we want to put in place an orderly step to get us back to normalcy sometime in the foreseeable future."

Benjamin says he is hopeful that the #MaskUpColumbiaSC social media campaign can add a level of creativity, and even fun, to the idea of wearing masks. He showed off his own mask at the news conference, which featured the symbol of his college fraternity.

"We are trying to use the power of social media and trying to find some bright lights in the challenges we are facing," the mayor says. "We want to encourage folks to participate in this public education and social engagement campaign. ... Tapp's Outpost was amazingly helpful in helping us put together a website. Hopefully this is a fun way to get people to try to wear masks.

"We know that, when you wear masks, it not only helps protect you, but it helps protect the folks around you. It's a simple barrier. A very simple, old school barrier used over 100 years ago when we dealt with the great pandemic of the second decade of the 20th century."

Columbia's marketing push to get people to put on masks comes at a time when South Carolina continues to see COVID-19 cases explode. On Thursday, the state announced 1,842 new coronavirus cases, and a one-day record 69 deaths. (The state Department of Health and Environmental Control noted that death tally included previously unconfirmed deaths from the last several weeks.) In all, there have been more than 63,000 COVID-19 cases in South Carolina since march, with more than 1,000 deaths. As of Thursday, 1,578 people were in state hospitals with COVID-19, a record high for coronavirus hospitalizations.

While the governor has not issued a mask mandate, state officials continue to implore citizens to adopt the practice.

In a wide-ranging cover story interview with Free Times, state epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell said wearing a mask is an effective tool in helping slow down the virus.

"If we could adopt the widespread use of masks throughout our populations, that is how we can make a significant difference," Bell says. "It has worked in other jurisdictions and other countries and it has made a dramatic difference, that really can happen quite rapidly if there is a very high uptick of that very simple, low-tech measure."

While numerous officials have noted that masks can help slow the spread of COVID-19, Benjamin noted Friday that simply wearing masks is not enough. He also stressed the importance of social distancing and staying home when you can.

"We are spending so much time talking about some of the basic things we should be doing to mitigate the spread of the virus, I think we've kind of lost the essence of the bigger things we all should be doing," Benjamin said. "No one wants to talk about [stay at home] orders, but the reality is if we don't have some very specific things we need to do, we should all be in the same mentality we were in back in March and April. 

"We should stay home. We should do our darndest to stay off the streets and stay home."

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