What was supposed to be a routine housekeeping measure to extend North Myrtle Beach’s mask mandate Monday night turned into an almost hour-long discussion as residents lined up to air their grievances about the extension.
During the meeting, city council voted to extended its mask rules by passing second reading of the mask ordinance “in the ordinary course.”
That means instead of passing an emergency ordinance over and over again until the pandemic ends, the city passed the mask mandate as an ordinary ordinance with the sunset provision that when the state of emergency ends, so does the ordinance.
“It’s just an unfortunate point in time that we’re at right now,” said councilor Fred Coyne. “I don’t want to get somebody sick any more than I want them to get me sick. I know too many people personally who have been affected by this. If we’re going to err, we need to err on the side of caution.”
The rules under the emergency ordinance and new ordinance have not changed. Under the old ordinance, city council had full control of when the rules would expire. Under the new ordinance, city council still has full control of when the rules will expire.
The city passed the ordinance following the recommendation of the Municipal Association of South Carolina.
“When you continue to pass an emergency ordinance, it no longer becomes an emergency if you continue to do it. So the recommendation was that you pass the ordinance in its ordinary course, which requires two readings,” said city attorney Chris Noury.
“I want to make it clear that this ordinance is not a permanent ordinance,” Noury added. “It’s not permanent. There’s language in the ordinance that has a sunset provision in it. The sunset provision indicates very clearly in the ordinance that it will expire or be terminated when the emergency declaration regarding COVID is no longer in existence. So it’s not permanent by any means.”
And, like the emergency ordinance, council can always vote to revoke it.
Some residents, like Faye Chowning, spoke in favor of the ordinance.
“There has been so much communication put out about this,” Chowning said. “I appreciate what you’re doing because we are elderly people. I hate to say that, but we are. Our friends are dying over this COVID, and I support you guys 100 percent and I want to see that mask on people’s faces when I go out. I wear mine and I hope everybody else wears theirs.”
But other speakers were upset that the city hadn’t done more to inform them of the extension of the mask ordinance, and accused the city of not being transparent.
“At the end of the day, the transparency of this is a joke,” said Weldon Boyd, who owns Buoys on the Boulevard in North Myrtle. “There’s an argument they’re standing on that they did their legal obligation, put it out there. But your whole community had no idea about it. It’s not because we’re uneducated or ignoring the facts.”
In fact, the ordinance was included on the council agenda the city published on its website and social media channels on October 2, the Friday before the Monday meeting when council passed first reading. By contrast, the city only gave the required one day’s notice of the initial emergency mask ordinance on June 30, and passed another extension on August 31.
The raucous shouting and booing that echoed through the council chamber Monday night didn’t happen during either of those votes.
During the meeting, city officials defended the rules that have been on the books since June 30.
“We have an open letter from every hospital along the grand strand and in this county that has asked our cities to implement the facemask [ordinance],” said Mayor Marilyn Hatley. “We have people who have died this week from COVID-19. Our numbers increased over 200 in 12 days. We have COVID-19 here in our community in this time, and we need to do everything that we possibly can. Masks may not protect a hundred percent, but the CDC and all your scientists have said wear[ing] a mask will help with slowing the spread of COVID-19.”
Passing mask ordinances have consequences for the cities that choose to go that route.
According to data released in August by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, municipalities that passed mask mandate ordinances saw on average a 43 percent drop in new cases in the five weeks after the ordinance passed. Municipalities without a mask ordinance in place saw a 1.2 percent increase in new cases, DHEC said.
The downward trend of new cases in Horry County lasted until this month, when the numbers began to rise again.
“I’m a firm believer that people should do what they feel they need to do to be safe,” Boyd said. “If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask, just don’t make me wear a mask.”
But masks aren’t just to protect the wearer; they’re also meant to protect others. Since people with COVID-19 are often asymptomatic, young, healthy and mask-less residents could pass the virus to more susceptible populations that are more likely to require hospitalization or die.
“Quite frankly, I don’t like wearing a mask. But it’s not about me, it’s not about what I like,” said councilor J.O. Baldwin. “It’s about protecting others. It’s about doing what’s right; it’s about being a good neighbor.”
Councilor Nikki Fontana said passing the mask ordinance in the first place wasn’t an easy decision.
“We are trying to make the best decisions for our community as a whole to keep our residents, to keep our business owners, our visitors, everyone safe,” Fontana said. “We have a lot of elderly in our community, and you don’t realize the outpouring of emails, phone calls, texts that we have all received, especially in the beginning of this, begging us to enact this ordinance, because they’re scared.”