North Myrtle Beach City Hall

North Myrtle Beach City Hall. File photo 

North Myrtle Beach will likely start discussing an emergency mask-mandate ordinance as early as next week, according to Mayor Marilyn Hatley. 

“We are at this time drafting an emergency order for a mask mandate for city council to discuss,” Hatley said. “If we do, it will be for the essential areas like grocery stores, pharmacies, very similar to what Greenville has done.” 

Hatley and councilor Hank Thomas said the city is planning on discussing the ordinance next week. 

“There’s not a whole lot of prevention for COVID-19 except social distancing and wearing a mask,” Hatley said. “It may be this is exactly what we have to do.” 

On Thursday, S.C. DHEC announced 126 new cases of COVID-19 in Horry County, bringing our local cumulative total up to 2,495 lab-confirmed cases with 42 deaths. The actual number of patients is likely much higher. DHEC estimates that for every confirmed case, there are nine who are undiagnosed. 

North Myrtle Beach’s zip code alone has seen 147 confirmed cases, and accounting for undiagnosed patients, DHEC estimates there are probably more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 in the area. 

The increase in both COVID-19 hospitalizations and the percent of tests that come back positive are evidence of a wide community spread.

Of the 7,842 hospital beds in use around the state Thursday morning, 881 beds held patients who have tested positive or are under investigation for COVID-19. On June 1, there were just 450 patients hospitalized for the disease. 

And while 9 percent of tests came back positive on June 1, almost 17 percent came back positive on Wednesday. 

DHEC officials have blamed the uptick in cases, as well as the downward trend in the age of new COVID-19 patients, to lax adherence to social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines. 

“I think if the governor’s not going to act, I’d like to see city council enact a face masks ordinance of some sort,” said councilor Hank Thomas. “For me, I’m inclined to go with retail spaces as well as grocery stores and essential services. Even myself, I don’t always wear a mask in the store. I think a lot of people just need a little nudging to do the right thing.” 

Since the virus currently has no vaccine and no cure, its spread is entirely dependent on whether or not residents follow guidelines like wearing a mask in public to protect those around them, and practicing social distancing. 

Masks covering the mouth and nose prevent people wearing masks from spreading COVID-19, but doesn’t necessarily protect them from contracting it, so masks only work if everyone wears them. 

Masks and social distancing are critical to preventing the spread of the disease and saving lives, because an estimated 40 percent of COVID-19 transmission occurs in people in the days before symptoms appear – a period that can last anywhere from several days to two weeks – if symptoms appear at all, according to the CDC.

That means healthy people who feel fine can still spread the disease to other more susceptible populations such as the elderly and those with underlying health conditions who are much more likely to die of COVID-19 if they get it.

State epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell on Wednesday said she was in favor of a state-wide mask requirement, worrying that it would take too long to put the requirements in place if it was up to each individual jurisdiction.

Several North Myrtle Beach councilors said they wished that Gov. Henry McMaster would have ordered a mask mandate, but due to his inaction, it was up to them. 

The South Carolina Attorney General’s office on Wednesday said it was legal for cities to implement their own mask ordinances. 

“I think that it should be done statewide, but the authorization has been given for cities to implement this,” said councilor J.O. Baldwin. “I think it would be a good thing to institute. We’re studying right now to see what our options are, and how we will enforce this if we put it into place.”

Hatley said the city is currently looking at passing a mandate just for essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies, and strongly recommending restaurants and other retailers require their employees to wear masks. 

“The thing we’re looking at is the essentials, where people have to go,” Hatley said. “It’s your own decision whether you want to go into a retail store or if you want to go shopping.”

Thomas and Cavanaugh both said they’d like to see an ordinance that covers all retailers. 

“I wish the governor had done it as a statewide activity, but he at least left the door open for us,” Cavanaugh said. “I’m in favor of us doing something in this area. We’ve just got to. I’d like to see it for all businesses. I think we have a sufficient mix of tourists and residents that I think we need to do it to protect our residents, and our workforce.”

Cavanaugh went a step further, saying he was in favor of a mask requirement outdoors as well, unless social distancing rules were in place. 

Councilor Nikki Fontana is still on the fence, although she’s inclined towards voting for the ordinance.

“I’m probably leaning towards yes, but I’m still thinking about everything,” Fontana said. “I like to weigh my options on everything when I make a decision. I’m getting calls, I feel like there’s pretty much a split. There’s 50 percent who want things mandated, and there’s 50 percent that don’t. They feel like their rights are being violated if the government is stepping in and mandating these things.” 

Fontana cited an example of a day where she went to both Walgreens and Bi-Lo. At Walgreens, she said, there were only a couple people in the whole store, and she didn’t wear her mask. At Bi-Lo, the store was crowded and she made sure her mask was on. 

“There’s times I haven’t worn mine, and [times] I have worn it because I felt like I needed to because of the amount of people around,” Fontana said. “You may not always be able to social distance, so it’s taking a preventative measure.”  

Hatley said the ordinance would be comparable to a “no shirt, no service” rule, but the responsibility for enforcement is still being worked out. 

“Hopefully the businesses will step up to the plate and be responsible for asking everyone who enters their store to wear a mask,” Hatley said. 

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