Seven Horry County Council members wore masks at Tuesday night’s meeting.
Five did not.
Unsurprisingly, council members voted 7-5 against ending the county’s emergency mask mandate.
“The government requires us to do common sense things every day,” councilman Dennis DiSabato said. “We’re required to put clothes on before we leave the house. We’re required to wear a seat belt. We’re prohibited from drinking and driving. So I’m a little fed up with the idea that we are somehow being unconstitutional by asking people to do something that makes common sense and that data has shown has been working.”
Tuesday’s vote followed a nearly 40-minute discussion that saw council members quote the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the Gospel of John and even a pro-face mask social media post. Mask supporters argued that the county’s mandate — which requires people to wear face coverings in many public settings — is helping slow the spread of COVID-19. Opponents, however, blasted the policy as government overreach.
“I don’t want you to protect me,” councilman Johnny Vaught said. “That’s my job.”
Under the county’s policy, those entering businesses are required to wear face coverings while inside those establishments. Masks may be removed to receive certain services, such as a haircut, or for someone to eat a meal at a restaurant.
Restaurants and retail stores must also require their employees to wear masks, and the ordinance also applies to personal care providers such as nail salons, tattoo parlors and barber shops.
“I hate wearing the masks,” councilman Bill Howard said. “I hate it, but I wear them every day in all my businesses, everywhere I go. … I hate it, but I know it’s making a difference.”
Last month, state health officials released data showing that communities with mask ordinances have seen a slower rate of COVID-19 spread than those without mask policies.
But opponents of the county ordinance contend that masks are ineffective and the policy is meaningless because the county isn’t citing violators.
“There’s no need to add one more [ordinance] that’s not going to be enforced,” councilman Paul Prince said.
Vaught said he has no problem with the county recommending mask usage, but he disagrees with making the coverings a requirement.
"If you wear a mask and it makes you feel comfortable and safer, then more power to you and I respect your right," he said. "I don't have a bit of problem with you wearing that. … [But] we're taking people's rights away from them. The government does not have the right to do that."
In some ways, Tuesday’s discussion continued a dispute that erupted at the council’s Sept. 1 meeting. That’s when council members extended the mask ordinance for 60 days (the original ordinance was approved July 3).
The sparring began because the extension was listed on the council’s “consent agenda,” a list of resolutions and ordinances that council members approve with a single vote. Procedurally, the move is essentially a rubber stamp that allows council members to hasten the pace of their meeting by quickly approving multiple items that aren’t controversial. But council members occasionally ask that certain subjects be removed from the consent agenda and debated in public. Those changes are typically approved. Yet when that request was made Sept. 1, most council members opposed changing the agenda, thus extending the ordinance.
That led chairman Johnny Gardner to place the item on this week's main agenda as a resolution calling for the termination of the mask rules.
But the council's mask divide did not change Tuesday.
Council members Howard, DiSabato, Harold Worley, Tyler Servant, Gary Loftus, Orton Bellamy and Cam Crawford supported extending the mask regulations. Councilmen Vaught, Prince, Al Allen, Danny Hardee and Gardner voted to end the mask rules.
Gardner, who sets the agenda, apologized for the way the Sept. 1 vote was handled.
“When I first got here, I told y’all that I represent the minority,” Gardner said. “And I told you what I mean by that is I will make sure that anybody up here that wants to be heard will be heard. And I failed on that last time. … That is not going to happen again.”