Columbia mayor says governor’s order invalidates city’s mask mandate

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Just moments after the Columbia City Council passed an extension of its COVID-19 mask ordinance Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Henry McMaster released an executive order that city leaders believe essentially invalidates the ordinance.

Late Tuesday afternoon, McMaster issued an executive order that, among other things, explicitly prohibits any county or local governments in South Carolina from relying on prior gubernatorial orders or a state of emergency as the basis for a local mask mandate.

The order came shortly after Columbia City Council had extended its order requiring masks in public places, in place in some form for nearly a year, until June 5.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, an attorney, said it appears the governor’s move makes the city’s mask mandate invalid.

“We still have a state of emergency, but using the state of emergency to justify a mask ordinance ... seems to be what (McMaster) has invalidated,” Benjamin told The State. “So, as it relates to the city (mask) ordinance, and even the most recent extension we voted on, it makes the ordinance moot. Over the course of the pandemic, even when we’ve disagreed with the governor, we recognized his authority on the issue. Our focus will remain on the preservation of human life.”

City Council on Tuesday had approved an extension of its mask ordinance amid the coronavirus pandemic, though it was a much shorter extension than has become customary in the last year. The measure was passed by a 6-1 vote, with Councilman Daniel Rickenmann voting no.

But following the governor’s order, it appears the city’s mask mandate is no more.

“With the COVID-19 vaccine readily available and case numbers dropping, I will not allow local governments to use the state of emergency declaration as a reason for implementing or maintaining mask mandates,” McMaster said in a release. “Everybody knows what we need to do to stay safe including wearing a mask if you’re at risk of exposing others – but we must move past the time of governments dictating when and where South Carolinians are required to wear a mask. Maintaining the status quo ignores all of the great progress we’ve made.”

Benjamin had already urged Council during Tuesday’s meeting to turn its attention to pushing hard on COVID-19 vaccinations throughout the city. He said those efforts will now ramp up.

“We are going to work toward dramatically increasing our vaccination numbers across Columbia and Richland County,” Benjamin said. “We want to ensure equitable access to the vaccine and doing our very best to get people past vaccine hesitancy and to basically push back against misinformation that still discourages people from getting vaccinated.”

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine sent out a statement Tuesday night saying she thinks the governor’s order could be a violation of home rule, and said she’ll ask City Council to request the city attorney to look into legal options for the city.

The city had a mask ordinance in place amid COVID-19 since June 2020, and it was extended a number of times.

Fines for violations of the city law for individuals began at $25, but the law was beefed up in November, raising the fine to $100. Marshals with the Columbia Fire Department issued more than 600 mask tickets since July, per fire chief Aubrey Jenkins.

The Centers for Disease Control says even those who are fully vaccinated should still wear masks in large crowds and where social distancing isn’t possible, and that people who aren’t vaccinated should wear them indoors and if they are with a crowd outdoors.

COVID-19 numbers have significantly improved in South Carolina. On Tuesday, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control reported 287 new cases statewide, with zero new deaths. There were 359 COVID-19 patients in S..C. hospitals as of Tuesday, down from a high of 2,400 in January.

Benjamin said Tuesday he has no regrets about the city having a mask ordinance for nearly a year.

“The efforts that have led to the rapid deceleration (of COVID) are directly attributable to the leadership of local government, which grabbed the bull by the horns and led from the front,” Benjamin said.