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Dozens of SC cities and counties still have mask requirements as COVID-19 cases decline

Charleston mask sign.jpg (copy)

Signs posted on Market Street around the City Market remind visitors to the area of the mask ordinance that is effect on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

COLUMBIA — The daily updates delivered to Steve Benjamin's inbox offer encouraging progress more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the Columbia mayor was miffed there was an uptick April 7 in the percent of positive coronavirus tests reported to the public by state health officials. The numbers aren't yet consistently low enough to where Benjamin feels the city should relax rules requiring masks in public places.

He and other local officials want to see multiple weeks in which fewer than 5 percent of South Carolinians taking a COVID-19 test get diagnosed with the virus. The rate has averaged 4.5 percent over the last month but fluctuated between 3.4 percent and 7.9 percent day to day over that period, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.  

"It's been down fairly consistently over the last couple of months, and that's encouraging," Benjamin said. "We believe that the mask ordinance plays a role in driving it down. I think we're going to do as we have, continue to follow the data."

And he's not alone.

While Gov. Henry McMaster lifted mask mandates for state buildings last month, South Carolina's capital city is one of dozens of local governments in the state to keep mask requirements in place even as additional cases and deaths have dropped steadily with the rise of vaccinations

Statewide, only Laurens County still trended a high rate of virus spread as of April 7, while 15 counties, including Richland, posted low disease activity, according to the state's public health agency

But 54 cities and towns and nine counties still have a mask ordinance in place, according to data tracked by the state emergency management agency.

That includes Midlands jurisdictions like Columbia, Forest Acres and Richland County, which renewed its mask requirement another 60 days in an emergency vote April 6. Other mask mandates statewide include Upstate cities of Greenville and Spartanburg and coastal areas like Charleston and Hilton Head Island.

The mask rules remaining in place for the most part don't appear to follow geographic or ideological boundaries. Some local governments have let the requirement lapse when their latest 60- or 30-day duration is up, said Scott Slatton, with the Municipal Association of South Carolina.

"That could change, I guess, based on how the numbers go," Slatton said. "Local officials are making those decisions based on the conditions in their communities."

Local governments have also begun considering reopening services to the public and employees in the wake of McMaster's March 5 order that not only lifted mask mandates for state buildings and restaurants but also directed state employees still working from home to return to the office.

Some officials are looking at federal guidance that suggests masks should be worn until the percent of positive tests stays below 5 percent for a two-week period. 

The best of health, hospital and science coverage in South Carolina, delivered to your inbox weekly.

Others say they are wary of other strains of the virus and how effective the vaccines will be against them.

The daily emails Columbia City Council receives from Emergency Management Director Harry Tinsley include statewide and county testing data, percent positive rate, hospital occupancy and ventilator use, and vaccines administered.

In coastal areas like the small town of Beaufort, situated between Charleston and Hilton Head, officials look at the percent of the community that's vaccinated but are wary of tourist season and people visiting the area from all over the country, Mayor Stephen Murray said.

At the end of March, Murray and the City Council voted to extend the ordinance another month.

"The economy’s open, we’ve got a number of tourists and visitors coming in," Murray said. "And so while a lot of us don’t like wearing masks, myself included, we do think it’s a simple, small measure that keeps our economy open and keeps our people safe until we can get more shots in arms in the next couple months. I think we’re getting close."

The continued mask rules have not been without detractors.

Richland County Councilman Joe Walker, who voted against the mask ordinance again April 6, has consistently opposed the county requirement. Columbia City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann asked that council revisit its rule in April to see if numbers supported lifting the mandate.

Before Charleston considered extending its mask mandate in March, council members received 22 comments opposing extending the requirement and five supporting the extension, according to meeting minutes.

Councilman Kevin Shealy said during the meeting the mask ordinance had done its job, that the most vulnerable members of the population had been protected and that masks should be optional moving forward.

Council member Harry Griffin said the city's rules were at odds with the governor's orders and that the city should repeal the requirement and stop issuing tickets for violations.

The council ultimately voted to extend the requirement until April 14 and will reconsider the rule during its meeting April 13.

"There's a lot of fatigue, patience is low, but we're getting closer to normalization," Dr. Michael Sweat, director of the Medical University of South Carolina's Center for Global Health, told Charleston City Council in March. "I would think by the summer, if we can get vaccination rates up, we're going to be in a much stronger position and we can begin to start loosening up some of the restrictions. But people do need to be vigilant a little bit longer."

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

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