Columbia stops enforcing its mask ordinance connected to pandemic

·2 min read

For nearly a year, the city of Columbia has had a mask ordinance on the books amid the coronavirus pandemic, and has enforced it with fines up to $100.

That enforcement is over.

The city said in a release late Thursday evening that its mask guidelines had been switched to an “advisory” and that it would no longer be enforcing the ordinance. The city is still requiring masks for its employees and for any visitors to city offices or buildings.

New guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control were cited in Columbia’s decision to stop enforcing masks. On Thursday, the CDC and President Joe Biden’s administration advised, among other things, that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks outdoors or in most indoor settings.

The issue of the city’s mask rules already had been clouded earlier this week. On Tuesday, City Council passed an extension of its mask mandate until June 5, with members indicating that would be the final extension of the ordinance. But literally minutes after that extension was passed, Gov. Henry 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.

That threw the city’s ordinance into question, with Mayor Steve Benjamin saying he believed McMaster’s move effectively invalidated the city’s mandate and City Manager Teresa Wilson saying the city’s legal department was going to thoroughly review the matter.

But Thursday’s announcement that the city’s mask ordinance will no longer be enforced brings clarity. The city’s Thursday release said residents are still “encouraged” to wear masks when necessary.

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 2020, per fire chief Aubrey Jenkins.

Columbia already had begun turning its eyes away from a mask mandate and toward pressing harder to get more people vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Our efforts going forward ought to be significantly enhancing a focus on pushing up our vaccination numbers, so we can get to the point where we can be closer to the 70 or 80 percent range (of residents vaccinated),” Benjamin said Tuesday. The mayor said the city is studying a program in which it will partner with other entities to deliver vaccines to those who may not have transportation or access.

According to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, more than 3.1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the Palmetto State. Nationally, more than 118 million people have been fully vaccinated.