Horry County Council will likely discuss a mask mandate Tuesday night, but those in favor of the ordinance doubt they have the votes to resurrect the policy.
Although most council members support requiring people to wear masks in businesses, the policy is considered an emergency ordinance, meaning it requires two-thirds of the council — or eight votes – to pass. In recent meetings, the highest number of council members in favor of a mandate was seven. That lack of support is why the previous mandate, which lasted from July 3 through Oct. 30, expired.
“I do not believe we have the votes to pass it,” said Horry County Councilman Harold Worley, who plans to raise the issue at Tuesday night's meeting. “So we’ll see.”
Supporters see a mask mandate as a helpful tool in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Worley voted against a mask policy at the last meeting, but he said that was a procedural tactic. He knew the votes weren’t there to approve the policy, so he voted against it knowing that he could ask for reconsideration at Tuesday’s meeting.
Only council members who vote on the prevailing side of an issue can request reconsideration. The move did not stop the mandate from expiring on Oct. 30, but it bought Worley and other mask supporters on council some time to discuss the matter further and bring it back Tuesday. Residents also shared their thoughts with the county. Since the council opted to allow the mandate to expire, 122 emails were sent to county officials and the majority of those messages were in support of the mandate, county spokeswoman Kelly Moore said. The county also received 26 phone calls and all of them were in favor of requiring mask usage.
“I got nasty, nasty emails,” Worley said, noting that some people didn't understand that he was trying to preserve the mandate. “I’ve never had this many emails on an issue since I’ve been in politics.”
Under the county's former policy, people entering businesses were required to wear face coverings while inside those establishments. Masks were allowed to be removed to receive certain services, such as a haircut, or for someone to eat a meal at a restaurant.
Restaurants and retail stores were also required to make their employees wear masks, and the ordinance applied to personal care providers such as nail salons, tattoo parlors and barber shops.
Violating the policy was 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 stated that each day of not wearing a mask was considered a separate offense.
But those who oppose the mandate insist the decision should be a personal choice, not an obligation.
“All we do is we criminalize normal behavior,” councilman Johnny Vaught said.
Vaught maintains the county should encourage people to follow the recommendations of state and federal health officials. He said he would even back a resolution that includes language supporting mask usage, but he won’t vote for a mandate, which he said is unenforceable. No one received a ticket for a mask violation during the nearly four months of the county mandate.
“I haven’t backed away from that the first time,” Vaught said. “I totally feel that way.”
The swing vote on the mandate could be Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner. In July, he cast the final vote needed to enact the mandate, but he publicly backed away from the policy last month. Gardner said he supports mask usage and he wears them in public places, but he no longer backs the mandate. However, he said he’s willing to hear what his peers have to say.
“From Day 1 on this mask issue, I’ve said if county council wants to talk about it, I’m all ears,” he said. “But that thing has been debated. I think we’ve had three meetings on it. … I think council has spoken.”
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.
Along the Grand Strand, multiple cities have enacted mask mandates, including Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach and Conway.