Horry County’s mask mandate will expire on Oct. 30.
After a convoluted debate that spanned more than half an hour Tuesday night, council members ultimately lacked the votes to continue the mandate, which has been in place since July 3.
“The numbers are going in the wrong direction, guys, for us to be doing this,” Horry County Councilman Harold Worley said. “We have friends in North Myrtle Beach that are dying from this COVID. I see you folks out there as my family. As a community leader, I believe that what we should do is do what we believe in our hearts is the right thing. Damn politics when it comes to life and death. And I believe that this mask can’t hurt and it could possibly help.”
The mask mandate’s fate was determined after council members debated multiple motions and proposals, including changing the ordinance language to state that the council simply encouraged mask usage. At one point, visibly frustrated council members adjourned for five minutes and some walked into an adjacent room to talk. When the meeting began again, there was still confusion among councilmen about whether they were voting for an amendment to a motion or a motion itself.
The end result was the council did not extend the mask mandate and did not create a new mandate to replace the expiring one.
"You have to wear a mask just about everywhere you go," Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner said. "The problem that you’re seeing is that some of the people aren’t wearing it right. A lot of people are tired of wearing it; they don’t think it's working. And I don’t want to get bogged down into the math or the science about it because there are so many people saying one thing and so many saying the other. It's just that the county council decided enough was enough."
Under the policy that will end this month, people 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.
Violating the policy is a civil infraction punishable by a $25 fine for the first offense, $50 for a second offense and $100 for all subsequent violations. The ordinance states that each day of not wearing a mask is considered a separate offense.
The proposal on Tuesday’s agenda was to create a new emergency ordinance that included the same mask mandate. An emergency ordinance requires a two-thirds majority of council to pass (eight votes). In recent weeks, the mask mandate has received support from seven council members: Worley, Bill Howard, Dennis DiSabato, Tyler Servant, Gary Loftus, Orton Bellamy and Cam Crawford. Councilmen Johnny Vaught, Paul Prince, Al Allen, Danny Hardee and Gardner have wanted to end the mask rules.
“I have a problem with continuing this state of emergency in Horry County,” Vaught said Tuesday. “Because I don’t think a state of emergency continues to exist.”
State health officials have credited mask ordinances with slowing the spread of the virus.
Data released in August by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control showed that municipalities with mask mandate ordinances saw on average a 43% drop in new cases in the five weeks after the ordinance passed. Municipalities without a mask ordinance in place saw a 1.2% increase in new cases.
The downward trend of new cases in Horry County lasted until this month, when the numbers began rising again.
“The numbers are increasing,” said Randy Webster, the county’s assistant administrator over public safety. “We are seeing that each day the hospitals are getting more folks going into the hospital to the ICU. So we’re kind of trending back up again where we were probably around May, early June.”
But council members ultimately agreed to allow the state of emergency to expire this month.
“We have things well under control,” Vaught said. “I don’t see any sense in us staying under a state of emergency.”
Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Gardner defended the council’s decision and said he would continue to wear a mask.
“We’re not saying anything’s over,” he said. “We’re just ending the mandate.”
The council could hold a special meeting before the Oct. 30 deadline and extend the mandate. Gardner said that's unlikely, though he noted the council could change course if needed.
“We deal with hurricanes,” he said. “We can do things in a short period of time.”
Gardner did acknowledge that residents might become confused because the county’s ordinance only affects the unincorporated areas. It doesn't change the mask rules in municipalities. North Myrtle Beach officials just extended their mask mandate and other Grand Strand cities have similar policies in place.
“It might be confusing,” the chairman said. “I would suggest to anybody that’s getting confused, ‘Wear your mask.’”