GREENVILLE — Even as more vaccine shots go in arms each day, cases of COVID-19 remain persistently high in the area, prompting the city to extend its mask requirement yet again.
City Council voted in special called session on April 8 to extend its emergency ordinance requiring face coverings in retail establishments another 60 days. Whether the summer will see the end of mask rules when the latest extension expires remains to be seen.
Before the vote, health officials cautioned that social distancing and mask measures will likely be necessary beyond summer.
"I think we're going to be in a good place hopefully by next fall, but I don't think it's going to be before then," Dr. Wendell James, Prisma Health-Upstate's chief clinical officer, told the council.
In June, as a summer surge in coronavirus cases began, the city was the first in South Carolina to enact mask requirements, which first applied to grocery stores and pharmacies. The requirement, which expanded in October to include all retail establishments inside the city limits, has been extended now five times even as local governments in other parts of the state have relaxed rules.
The latest extension offers no changes and maintains the status quo, City Attorney Mike Pitts said. The penalty for a violation is a $25 civil fine. Establishments aren't responsible for enforcing regulations except on their own employees, for which a violation costs $100.
Health officials said they expect another virus spike due to traditional events like spring break and Easter when people tend to gather.
"While the number of COVID-19 cases has dropped significantly since January, there has been a gradual increase over the last 10-14 days as restrictions have eased and Spring Breaks have started," Dr. Marcus Blackstone, chief clinical officer Bon Secours St. Francis health system, said in a statement provided before the vote.
Greenville County is considered to be at a high level of coronavirus incidence according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. Its two-week incidence rate is 254 cases per 100,000 residents as of April 5. Anything over 200 is considered high. Only five counties in South Carolina still have a high incidence rate: Greenville, Pickens, Oconee, Laurens and Dillon.
Slightly more than 107,000 of the county's population of 523,000 has received at least a first dose of a vaccine, one in six county residents, according to the county's COVID data hub. Unlike the city, which has about 70,000 residents, Greenville County did not enact a mask ordinance.
The number of COVID patients in hospitals dropped precipitously after the winter surge but recently Prisma has seen a doubling of hospitalizations, James said. The use of masks has been important, James said, because other seasonal diseases like the flu have been almost non-existent compared with the more contagious COVID-19 virus.
“What we’re doing is working a miracle with respect to our normal complement of wintertime and spring diseases," he said. "By virtue of the fact that we know it’s working for that, it has to be working to mitigate the spread of this virus.”