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Editorial: Could Charleston learn a lesson from Columbia on mask enforcement?

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More than a month after pictures such as this one of students waiting to get into a bar in Columbia's Five Points district became commonplace, the capital city finally started enforcing its mask mandate before Thanksgiving. Photo by Sean Rayford

We’ve always agreed with local officials who said the most effective part of a mask mandate is the fact that it exists: that the best way to make it work is to give a lot of warnings and do a lot of educating. In that sense it’s much like a seat belt law and, for that matter, most laws: Its main job is to communicate the expected norms of behavior; we only have to enforce it when that communication effort fails.

But refusing to enforce any law that people continue to violate only encourages them to keep violating it, so there comes a time when active enforcement is necessary. That time came long ago in many communities across South Carolina, unfortunately with little response, helping to feed the second wave of COVID-19 infections.

So we’re glad to see that one of the poster children for refusal to enforce a mask ordinance — or social-distancing requirements that the governor has given local governments the tools to enforce — finally woke up. The Post and Courier’s Andy Shain reports in rapid succession, the Columbia City Council beefed up its mask ordinance, and the city issued 130 mask violations the weekend before Thanksgiving. That’s compared to a total of 36 citations written from June through mid-November.

The crackdown came after the council apparently had enough of social media posts showing hundreds of young people partying after football games and jammed in line waiting to get into college bars near the USC campus, in some cases with the police on scene, doing nothing about the clear disregard for the public health. (In Columbia, the fire department has the job of enforcing the mask ordinance.) As Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin told The State newspaper: “Patience has run thin, and citations and penalties will accelerate if folks continue to flout the law.”

It’ll be a while before we know how much good Columbia’s more aggressive approach does, because the crackdown came just days before USC closed the campus for the rest of the year, sending students back home to complete the semester remotely. We hope they remember the crackdown when they return to campus in January — and that the city will stick to its new approach if they don’t.

And we hope other communities will get more serious about curbing the public behavior that is keeping South Carolina’s infection numbers high enough that most public schools still haven’t allowed students to return to class five days a week, and some are reducing the number of in-person classes they offer.

Although Columbia’s Five Points district seems to attract a special kind of irresponsibility, Post and Courier reporter Nick Masuda has documented repeated violations of mask mandates and social-distancing requirements at college and high school football games in Horry County, including at a nationally televised football game last month where Coastal Carolina University officials did nothing to try to enforce the mask and social-distancing rules they agreed to in order to host the game.

And after Charleston seemed to get off to a good start enforcing its mask mandate, Charleston's WCSC-TV reports an uptick of college-age people clustering outside bars along King Street — with Charleston police making the sort of excuses for not cracking down that we heard for so long in Columbia. We deserve better.

We understand that loopholes in mask ordinances can make enforcement hit and miss. But as we've explained before, state law allows local police to make arrests whenever three or more people whom they consider a danger to public health refuse to disperse on order, even if they're not violating a mask mandate.

We need our police to start protecting the public from flagrant crowding, particularly among people who refuse to wear masks.

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