Sumter County Council seeks legal advice on possible mask mandate


A county-wide mask mandate continues to seem unlikely in Sumter County.

The county's Public Safety Committee met Tuesday to receive advice from attorney Johnathan Bryan on a possible emergency ordinance mask mandate, and after researching the legality of the matter, he was concerned about governing bodies' authority and enforcement capacity.

"We have the authority to issue a face covering ordinance that applies in the unincorporated area of the county if we declare an emergency and pass an emergency ordinance," he said before Sumter County Council members, who were all in attendance.

An unincorporated area is a region not governed by a local municipal corporation, so a county mandate would not affect the City of Sumter, Town of Pinewood or Town of Mayesville.

Councilman Carlton Washington, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, asked Bryan for advice on how Sumter County Council should move forward with the matter.

"You're talking about the law and what we can do," Bryan said. "I'm not confident that we can pass an ordinance to mandate face coverings on a regular ordinance."

Bryan said an emergency ordinance can give leeway to authorize the mandate, but it cannot violate general law enforcement. He thinks the county could move forward with an emergency ordinance, but it would have a 50/50 chance of benefiting the county.

"DHEC recently says that it is unenforceable, which is why they refuse to write the order," Washington said.

"If you were to pass a law that mandates face coverings, there's no enforcement," Bryan said. "I don't have the confidence at this moment that it would survive a challenge ... I'd like to have a confidence level of more than 50% before advising if we were likely to sustain a challenge in court."

Sumter County Chairman Jim McCain said council should not authorize an emergency ordinance for a mask mandate because Sumter County Sheriff Anthony Dennis told him the sheriff's office cannot and will not enforce face coverings.

"If that be the case, then why pass it?" McCain asked.

Councilman Eugene Baten said council should pass it because their constituents are dying of COVID-19.

"I'm trying to grapple with a mask mandate because I'm seeing other people passing and doing mask mandates," Baten said. "People are dying."

"Our sheriff has told us he cannot enforce it. We do not have a city mandate, and our legal counsel just advised us that our chances would be 50/50 at best," Washington said to Baten. "What would be the implementation plan?"

Baten said the county and the sheriff have the authority to enforce the mandate.

"What I'm hearing you say the sheriff say is that 'I don't care. I don't care, let them die,'" Baten said to Washington. "If you're not going to do anything…"

"There is something we can do," Washington interrupted Baten. "We can write the members of the delegation… It's not county council who has us in this bind. It is the members of the General Assembly."

"When the states don't do it, then the counties can do it. That's what county governments are doing," Baten responded. "You can come back and deal with this issue where people are dying. Now you don't want to do that, then you got blood on your hands because you have the power to come back and make it mandatory that all the kids in school wear masks."

Sumter School District voted down a district-wide mask requirement again on Monday.

"A mask ordinance, I think, will hurt the vaccine more than help the vaccine because people will say, 'Oh I don't need a vaccine because I can wear a mask,'" Councilman Artie Baker said.

"It's up to you. I can't do it myself. You know my position," Baten said. "If I can't get four votes, that's it. It's up to you. But you know what, I'm going to say this: I'm going to sleep good at night. When kids start dying in this county, I'm going to sleep good at night, and I guarantee you that kids are going to start dying in this county."

No action was taken on the matter.