Sumter City Council defers decision on face mask requirement


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Sumter City Council held a virtual emergency meeting Friday afternoon to decide whether face coverings should be required to be worn in public.

The short meeting started with a motion from Councilman David Merchant to defer the decision for five days because of how quickly the meeting was scheduled. He said he feels he and the rest of the council members were not given enough time to decide how the requirement would affect residents.

By law, it is required that notice of special meetings be posted and sent to media at least 24 hours in advance. While the agenda was sent to The Sumter Item at 10:20 a.m. Friday, well within 24 hours, city officials pointed to a statute that exempts “emergency meetings of public bodies.”

According to city law, the mayor can impose a meeting during a state of emergency if it is considered a public crisis, disaster, rioting, civil disturbance, catastrophe or other reasons. In this circumstance, council can call a special meeting within 24 hours after a state of emergency.

Council passed Merchant’s motion with Councilman Calvin Hastie voting against it. Everyone else was present either in person, over Zoom or over the phone. Council will meet again in five days to decide.

The special meeting followed a stream of South Carolina cities that have approved mask requirements this week. So far, Columbia, Greenville, Clemson and Charleston have approved mask requirements, though Gov. Henry McMaster has been against the requirement.

Sumter’s proposed ordinance would require customers and staff to wear face coverings in retail and food service establishments, as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state Department of Health and Environmental Control have recommended as a means of preventing an infected person — who can be contagious without showing symptoms — from spreading COVID-19. It would include restaurants, drive-throughs and anywhere that sells food, as well as grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, liquor stores, laundromats and any business that sells goods or services.

If passed by a two-thirds vote, a violation can result in a $50 fine.

However, face coverings would not be required for the following: outdoor or unenclosed areas of retail stores or restaurants; for people whose religious beliefs prevent them from wearing a face covering; for those who cannot wear a face covering due to a medical or behavioral condition; for children under 8 years old; for restaurant patrons while eating; in private, individual offices; when complying with directions of law enforcement officers; in settings where it is not practical or feasible to wear a face covering, including while receiving dental services or while swimming; and while exclusively with members of a family or the same household.

The idea to move forward with the mask requirements came with the increase in positive COVID-19 tests and hospitalizations, which is at a record high in South Carolina. State Epidemiologist Linda Bell said this week it might be time for a statewide mask rule.

On Friday, DHEC announced an additional 1,273 new confirmed cases of the virus and one death, bringing the number of South Carolinians who have tested positive to 30,263 and those who have died to 694.

Friday’s daily case count is only 18 below the record that was set on Wednesday.

There are also 906 hospital beds being occupied by patients who have either tested positive or who are showing symptoms and are under investigation for the virus.

While the number of cases is expected to rise as more testing is conducted, the percentage of people testing positive was at 18.3% Friday, also an all-time high.

Projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation show less people dying from the virus by Oct. 1 if there is universal mask wearing compared to the current projections.

In Sumter, 943 people have tested positive for the virus, including an additional 42 that were announced on Friday.

Early this week, Mayor Joe McElveen said he was researching the authority of mayors to require masks to be worn in public. According to the proposed ordinance, the state Attorney General said Thursday that local governing bodies can enact mask requirements.

McElveen issued a proclamation Wednesday urging community members to wear face masks in public, noting that health care professionals say it is an effective way to reduce the spread of COVID-19, a highly contagious respiratory virus.

The ability for the city to hold an emergency meeting came into play earlier this month during protests about the extrajudicial police killing of George Floyd and worldwide outcry over racial injustice in the United States when the mayor, then city council, imposed a nightly curfew, which they canceled a few nights later.

McMaster postpones reopening entertainment venues

Also on Friday, Gov. McMaster said during a news conference the state would begin allowing certain immediate family members to visit nursing home and assisted living residents.

While a non-visitation rule has been in place to prevent the spread of the virus among this highly vulnerable population, McMaster said isolation can lead and has led to increased loneliness and depression. A public health official at the new conference also noted that family members are the most reliable source of discovery of abuse and neglect in such facilities.

While McMaster reiterated his unwillingness to issue a statewide mask mandate, he urged people to do so, especially young people whose age groups — under 40 — are seeing cases increasing by more than 400% — ages 21-30 — and more than 900% — ages 11-20.

“For goodness’ sake, wear your mask,” he said. “We know young people can be infected and not even know it … and they can easily pass it on to older people.”

The governor said he is postponing the reopening of the only parts of the state still closed, which are spaces used for large gatherings including nightclubs, spectator sports and concert venues.

Other virus topics the news conference covered included an overview of the state’s hospital surge plan remaining in place; an intention to open schools in-person in August as announced earlier this month; and the new Palmetto Priority program, which issues a window sticker for restaurants to display if they prove they’re following DHEC guidelines.

While Texas and Florida, which have also seen a spike in cases, banned alcohol sales at bars to help combat COVID-19, McMaster said he would not.

Joan Duwve, director of public health for DHEC, said Friday South Carolina is making “national and international headlines, but not in a way we’d like.”

She said governors of six states, including New York, have put South Carolina on their list of states for which you must quarantine for 14 days upon traveling from before reentering society in those states.

“When I arrived here in April,” the newly appointed director said, “it was exactly the opposite.”