Will Lexington Co., towns bring back mask mandates during COVID surge? What officials say

·3 min read

Mask mandates have made their return to the Midlands, including in Cayce, West Columbia, Columbia and Richland County. But other local governments contacted by The State don’t seem likely to adopt similar measures.

The mandates approved during the last week came on the heels of a letter sent to local leaders by Lexington Medical Center, saying the hospital had been dangerously overburdened by an influx of seriously ill COVID-19 patients. That has affected the hospital’s ability to treat other critically ill members of the community.

The letter asks local governments to adopt measures to stem the spread of the virus.

Lexington County Council did not adopt a countywide mask mandate last year, when surrounding jurisdictions did. County Council Chairman Todd Cullum said the county is not currently considering one.

Cullum said the county continues to monitor the situation at local hospitals, as well as the effect on schools in the county. Several Lexington County schools reverted to online classes earlier in the school year as the number of students excluded from class as a COVID precaution rose to 6,000 in the Lexington 1 school district alone.

Last year, Lexington County adopted a staggered work schedule for county employees to reduce the number of people in government offices, but Cullum said that was before the vaccine became widely available.

“To say that’s where we are now, with masks or vaccines or any other mandate, would be totally premature,” he said. “For now, we’re taking a wait and see approach,” although Cullum said the county council may assess the situation at its next meeting Sept. 28.

Irmo Mayor Barry Walker said the pandemic has reached the stage where it is better for governments to let individuals make their own choices about how to stay safe and healthy.

“We know know when you need to wear a mask, when you need to be vaccinated, whether to stay out in crowds,” Walker said. “If you make a bad choice and wind up dead, that’s a choice you made.”

At a recent meeting, the town council chose not to mandate that Irmo police officers wear masks, Walker said. Since then, police department chaplain died of COVID-19 last Sunday.

Walker said the one area he would like to see masks enforced is in schools, where some districts, including Lexington 2, have chosen to enforce masks. But state lawmakers have tried to block mask requirements through the state budget. The S.C. Supreme Court is currently considering a challenge to that budget requirement.

He also said he has concerns about hospitals being overwhelmed. Walker noted he has a pre-existing condition and, even though he’s vaccinated, he worries whether the hospital would be able to admit him in an emergency.

“I hope people will take precautions,” Walker said.

A spokeswoman for the town of Chapin said the town is not considering a mask mandate. A call to Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall was not returned prior to publication.

Lexington’s town website this week still prominently displays the town’s vote to rescind its previous town mask mandate in March.

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