South Carolina won’t require you to wear a mask. Cities and towns say they can’t. Most grocery stores won’t either.
So as the state has stirred back to life from a pandemic-induced freeze, the decision to put on a face covering in the name of public health has fallen to individuals.
And to the alarm of politicians and public health officials, many are choosing to go maskless to supermarkets and stores, despite warnings that the simple act of breathing can spread the new coronavirus — even by people who don’t yet know they are sick.
Walk into a supermarket around Charleston and maybe two-thirds of the shoppers will wear a mask. Stop by a coffee shop and the percentage is even lower. Pump gas or eat at a restaurant and it’s lower still.
The governor, South Carolina’s top public health officials and the mayors of its biggest cities have all urged residents to cover their faces in public. But South Carolina is one of just 14 states that hasn't made any kind of a statewide mask mandate, even for workers of newly reopened businesses. One poll has found South Carolinians lag behind 40 other states in mask use.
The unsettled social dynamics stuck out to movie star Bill Murray, who mused in a Jimmy Kimmel Live interview that young people in Charleston didn’t seem to be wearing masks much.
And they have troubled the state’s top infectious disease investigator, Dr. Linda Bell, who guesses only a tenth of the people she saw in Columbia last weekend wore masks. She told members of Richland County Council she was especially alarmed to see college students packing into lines outside bars in Five Points, the popular nightlife district.
“Not a one of them had a mask on, and that concerns me deeply,” said Bell, the state epidemiologist. “As long as we see those types of behaviors, we’re going to see high levels of disease activity.”
The public seemed to be missing the state’s message about masks, she said.
After North Charleston announced this month it would reopen its city hall, Mayor Keith Summey made a point of wearing a mask to the press conference.
He wanted to make it clear the city would be serious about masks when anyone came in to do business, he said. To get past security, citizens and staff have to put on a mask, which the city provides.
“I just think it’s important that we set the example as much as we can, although at the end of the day it’s going to be their individual calls,” Summey said.
In Mount Pleasant, Mayor Will Haynie drops his mask to speak on camera so his voice isn’t muffled, but he keeps it around his neck “because I am trying to lead by example.”
But watch the state’s leaders discuss the coronavirus pandemic, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone wearing a mask.
Gov. Henry McMaster doesn’t wear a mask to his regular press conferences. Neither do Bell or Dr. Rick Toomey, the director of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, which is managing the coronavirus response.
At meetings of the task force that crafted the state’s reopening plan, McMaster and Toomey declined to wear the masks they were provided.
When the governor traveled to North Charleston on Monday to welcome planes full of protective equipment for health care workers, he could be seen without a mask standing near others who wore them, including members of Congress, local mayors and the CEO of Boeing (nearly all of them took off their masks once the event began).
Only on Thursday did McMaster first publicize a photo of himself wearing a mask, when he tweeted about having a meal at Lizard’s Thicket, a meat-and-three restaurant that had recently reopened.
Thank you Lizard’s Thicket for providing a safe, indoor dining experience. Happy to be back! pic.twitter.com/haRh4GYXeM— Gov. Henry McMaster (@henrymcmaster) May 14, 2020
McMaster has said he doesn’t need to wear a mask because he keeps a distance from others and he stays around the same group of advisers. His office says he hasn’t shied away from urging the public to wear masks and wears one when it’s necessary.
“He’ll continue to do so when needed, but I can assure you that he’s not going to wear a mask solely for purpose of scoring brownie points with the press,” said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes.
For its part, DHEC said its leaders don’t wear masks when they speak so they can be heard clearly, and they usually appear on camera from places that have taken special precautions, like checking temperatures at the door, cleaning microphones after they’re used, and spacing people apart from each other.
“While the venues our public health officials routinely gather at have carefully implemented protections in place ... we understand the importance of setting a good example,” DHEC said in a statement.
Elsewhere in the country, the leaders of several states have taken it upon themselves to set an example, too. A third of the country’s governors wear masks when they brief the public on the pandemic, even if they take them off to speak, according to a Post and Courier review of their press conferences.
And they don’t fall along partisan lines. They include the Republican governors of Florida, Maryland, Ohio, Utah and Vermont.
America’s attitudes about masks have been colored by politics, stoking concerns in recent weeks that face coverings will be the next frontier in this country’s culture war.
In reality, mask wearing isn’t entirely partisan.
A recent Gallup poll found that Democrats and left-leaning moderates are much more likely to report wearing a mask in public, but the political divide isn’t black-and-white. The same poll found that more than half of Republicans and right-leaning independents have worn a mask in public.
A similar survey last month likewise found that most South Carolinians are heeding public health recommendations at least sometimes. Close to two-thirds of respondents said they were following mask guidelines somewhat or very closely, according to the poll conducted by Northeastern University, Harvard University and Rutgers University.
And while a sizable portion of the state — just over two in five people — reported following the recommendations very closely, the poll suggests that South Carolina is behind the curve. It ranked No. 41 for strict adherence, behind neighbors like North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
South Carolina is unique, in part, because it’s one of the few states that doesn’t require anyone to wear a mask. Most require workers in certain businesses like supermarkets or gyms to cover their faces, and at least nine have rules requiring customers to wear masks, too. (In Charleston, city council requires retail workers to wear masks on the job.)
While South Carolinians’ mask use appears most common in grocery stores, even supermarkets have shied away from making them mandatory.
Whole Foods Market comes closest, with a sign on its door asking shoppers to “please wear a face mask” and offering to provide one. Publix and Harris Teeter require employees to cover their faces, but they have stopped short of asking customers to do so. Most chains instead say they’re deferring to local laws.
McMaster has indicated that he’s not interested in imposing a mask mandate, and local leaders say they don’t have the legal authority to require masks. In fact, a long-standing state law technically makes it illegal to cover your face in public.
Instead, South Carolina is hoping its residents’ civic-mindedness will prevail in a state with an unquestioned streak of independence.
Anthony Guffey, a 39-year-old organizer of the ReopenSC group on Facebook, bristles at the idea of being told what to do and says he’s wary of public health authorities’ recommendations. But he says he doesn’t begrudge someone else’s decision to wear a mask, and he says he won’t tolerate anyone who berate mask-wearers on his page.
“Don’t force me to do something that I don’t want to do,” said Guffey, a 39-year-old Upstate contractor. “You should have the freedom to protect yourself however you see fit.”
Meanwhile, Lynn Teague of the state League of Women Voters, says that while she understands the state’s individualistic mindset, she questions how a measure meant to protect others impinges on anyone’s freedom.
“It harms no independence,” she said. “It’s every bit as sensible as requiring someone to drive on the right side of the road.”
Leaders around South Carolina say they’re doing their best in their own lives to set a good example. But scroll through their social media accounts and TV appearances, and you’re unlikely to see those efforts.
In Richland County, Sheriff Leon Lott and his deputies have posed for photos without masks in close quarters with hospital workers and food servers. A spokesman for his department says he frequently dons a mask — even if it’s not always on camera — particularly when he interacts with someone vulnerable to complications from the virus.
In Charleston, Mayor John Tecklenburg says he’s careful to wear a mask when he steps into City Hall and if he encounters people walking outside on Broad Street. On TV, he has talked about his mask and shown it to the camera, but he doesn’t wear it on camera.
On Hilton Head Island, Mayor John McCann and town manager Steve Riley wore masks last month when they sat together to call into a virtual meeting of town council, which was voting to urge residents to wear masks at stores. But at the next meeting, they appeared without masks. Riley said he and McCann wore masks that week because they had been exposed to a suspected coronavirus case; by the next meeting, they had been cleared and tried to keep their distance instead.
There are exceptions. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is chairing a national mask donation effort with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, hasn’t been shy about posting masked photos to social media.
“People look to us, our elected officials, for leadership. It’s important that we recognize that and send the right messages,” Benjamin said.
When the state Legislature reconvened this week, masks were commonplace among lawmakers, who do their work by spending hours together in the same room.
Some, like Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, went further, taking steps to keep away from his colleagues when he could and donning a plastic shield over his face mask.
"We’re part of the government, saying it’s important to wear masks. So you should be wearing a mask,” Tallon said. “I think it’s a bad example, by not wearing a facial mask when you are unable to social distance."
Their example could be key because recent psychology research has confirmed what most everyone already knows: The more people see others wear masks, the less they think it’s weird to do.
For the past few weeks in South Carolina, wearing a mask has felt a little weird. Take Dr. Marcus Blackstone, chief clinical officer of the Bon Secours hospital system in Greenville. He told reporters this month that he got looks when he wore a mask to a Lowe’s: “I walked in, and everybody’s looking at me like, ‘What are you doing?’”
Or ask Mackie Krawcheck Moore of Mount Pleasant, who remembers feeling judged for wearing a mask to the supermarket: “Plenty of people, especially when I was first wearing it, were looking at me like, ‘You idiot. You really believe this?’”
When she returned a few weeks later, they were far more commonplace: Workers all had them, as did most shoppers.
Early on in the coronavirus shutdown, Moore spearheaded a volunteer mask-sewing effort, coordinating the production of 11,000 cloth masks for health care workers and first responders. Recently, she’s begun selling the masks to the general public to raise funds for Thrive Saves Lives, the domestic violence nonprofit she runs.
Increasingly, she says, sales are picking up.