With more than a thousand Charleston-area students already in quarantine for COVID-19, South Carolina’s largest city decided it’s time to require face masks inside public and private schools and day cares.
The city council’s 10-3 vote Tuesday night came after a similar effort failed last month during a lengthy and raucous meeting. It also comes as the state finds itself in the middle of one of its worst surges of COVID-19, with one health care official calling masking “critical” to helping reduce the burden on local hospitals.
On Tuesday, the council voted on a first reading, which means the proposed ordinance still needs two more votes before it can go into effect.
The ordinance requires every person 2 and older to wear face masks inside any building in the city that is open to the public. That includes restaurants, retail shops, barber shops, grocery stores, pharmacies or any “other buildings open to the public” in the city, the ordinance states.
The ordinance also explicitly says the requirement applies to all public and private schools and day care facilities, language that previously had detracted from the effort when council considered a similar measure last month. Those who violate the ordinance could face fines.
Charleston City Council can take another vote on the matter as soon as six days from the ordinance’s first reading, and second and third readings can take place in the same meeting.
As council members prepared to get an update on COVID-19 and consider the mask mandate, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg lamented that the city needed to address the impact of the deadly virus again so soon.
“But we’re forced to,” Tecklenburg said. “We may have thought we were done with COVID, but it’s not done with us yet.”
Dr. Jeffrey DiLisi, president and CEO of Roper St. Francis Healthcare, said the hospital is experiencing “our third, and most dramatic surge, in COVID-19 patients.”
He said 85% to 90% of those patients in the hospital are unvaccinated. The contagious delta variant is causing cases to surge across the country. In South Carolina last week, more people were hospitalized with the virus than at any point since March 2020.
“We’re stretched thin,” DeLisi said, noting the hospital has been forced to delay surgeries that require overnight stays unless they would negatively affect or harm a patient. Health-care workers, he said, are tired both physically and mentally.
“Until we get everyone vaccinated, we’ve got to mask,” DeLisi said. “We know it reduces the risk of transmission. It’s critical to help reduce the burden on our health care systems.”
During the Aug. 17 city council meeting, which was held in-person on Daniel Island, a 90-minute public comment period devolved into chaos as citizens shouted that they would not comply with a mandate or make their children wear a mask in schools.
However, on Tuesday night, only one person voiced opposition to the proposed mask requirement during the public comment period of the city council meeting that, this time, was held virtually.
“I’m not a Trumper or even a Republican. I’m just a mother of a child with epilepsy and sensory issues,” Jessica Morse said. “Parents — not the government — know what is best for their own children.”
Clerk of Council Jennifer Cook said 10 people submitted written comments that falsely claimed no studies have shown the difference in infections in schools with mask policies and those without, while seven people urged council to mandate masks and “not let loud, anti-maskers dictate the health of the community.”
Still, a handful of city council members expressed reservations about whether the ordinance might be overstepping.
“If I had wanted to direct the policy of the schools, I would have run for school board,” said councilwoman Marie Delcioppo, who still voted in favor of the first reading of the mask mandate. “We have gotten so far removed from what exactly it is that city council is tasked with doing. I’m not stepping into the schools and telling them what to do.”
Fines for violating the mask mandate increase with each violation. Offenders would pay up to $100 for the first violation, up to $200 for the second offense and a maximum of $500 for the third offense.
However, the ordinance applies to children, too, which became a point of concern for some council members. Councilman Harry Griffin, who voted against the measure, declared that “this thing stinks.”
“Mr. Mayor, I want to see you go write that first ticket to a 5-year-old that is not wearing a mask,” Griffin said.
According to the ordinance, in public and private schools and day cares, only a fine of up to $100 can be imposed. And if children “knowingly and deliberately” break the rule, their parents or guardians can be warned or fined in their place.
Councilman Mike Seekings said he spent a lot of time inside Roper St. Francis Hospital last week, where he talked to health care workers and witnessed how COVID-19 is overwhelming the local hospital.
“I know that the people we run into every day on the street, who don’t get to see it in real-time, don’t like it,” Seekings said of a mask ordinance. “But if we don’t partner with our health care facilities and our health care providers and give them the help that they’re asking for, this is going to go on for a long time.”
Then, he fired back at his colleague Griffin for his complaints about a mask ordinance.
“To those who think this all stinks, for those who are inside that hospital and are suffering and for the people that are giving them care, that stinks,” Seekings said.
Councilman Robert Mitchell, whose 2-year-old grandson had COVID, said he has seen up-close the way this virus works. He has also lost friends and loved ones to the virus, he said.
“I hope everyone is hearing me very carefully and open your ears because it might be at your front door tomorrow,” he warned.
Aligning with Columbia
Charleston’s move gives the state’s capital city of Columbia an ally in the Lowcountry when it comes to how cities handle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Columbia has led the state in using municipal powers to implement requirements meant to keep its citizens safe from the contagious and deadly virus. In early August, Columbia became the first city in South Carolina to pass a measure requiring students and faculty to wear masks in some city schools.
However, that push also landed Columbia in a legal battle when the ordinance put the city at odds with a one-year law, called a proviso, that was included in the 2021-22 state budget.
That law states that no money from the state budget can be used to enforce mask mandates in schools. The South Carolina Supreme Court said teachers and other school employees — all paid for by state funds — would have responsibility for enforcing the mask mandate.
The language in Charleston’s ordinance directly addressed mask enforcement in schools. “No school district or public school shall create, announce or enforce requiring face masks be worn by students and/or employees related to this ordinance in any way,” the ordinance reads.
Charleston’s initial passage of the mask ordinance also came 11 days after the mayor declared that all city workers — from part-time interns to full-time police officers — must get vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 22.
Charleston’s recent surge in coronavirus cases is as large a spike as any seen in the Palmetto State since the pandemic began.
The South Carolina Children’s Hospital Collaborative, a nonprofit that represents the state’s four children’s hospitals, reported Tuesday that 37 children are hospitalized with a COVID-19 diagnosis.
Eight of the children are relying on a ventilator to help to help them breathe and 19 are in critical care, according to the collaborative.
The Holy City was not alone in voting for a mask mandate Tuesday night. Richland County Council approved a mask requirement of its own that will apply to schools as well as commercial businesses.
It goes into effect on Wednesday.