County encourages use of facemasks

WINNSBORO – A Fairfield County council resolution encourages but won’t require people to wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a unanimous vote Monday, council approved the resolution. It asks residents and visitors to wear “face coverings when in public locations where social distancing is not possible.”

“The main thing is that we can do our part to promote safety. That’s the way I look at it,” Council Chairman Neil Robinson said.

Council’s action comes as Fairfield County’s total reported cases hit 381 as of Tuesday, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The resolution stated Fairfield County reported 318 cases as of July 8, meaning the county added 53 new cases in the past six days.

South Carolina added 2,205 new cases Tuesday, just shy of the record of 2,219 cases reported three days earlier. DHEC reported 23 confirmed deaths.

The state’s percent of positive rate was 21.5 percent, according to DHEC reports.

In spite of the continuing escalation of COVID-19 in the state, Fairfield County Council stopped short of mandating masks and face coverings as other counties and cities have done.

The Town of Winnsboro adopted a mask mandate on 30. Richland County, the Town of Blythewood and the City of Columbia have also passed ordinances requiring masks.

Counties have received conflicting messages from the state on whether or not they can legally adopt ordinances requiring masks.

At a July 10 press conference, Gov. Henry McMaster expressed opposition to a state mask mandate, saying that task should fall to local governments.

“Things like masks, there are over 5 million people in South Carolina. Cities, counties … they’re taking local action for the local people. That’s fine,” McMaster said. “But the state would have a difficult time enforcing a statewide mask order. One size doesn’t fit all.”

On June 25, state Attorney General Alan Wilson released a statement saying cities have the power to adopt mask ordinances, but did not specifically say whether or not counties have the same authority.

Can Counties Order Masks?

“A city can pass this type of ordinance. Our state constitution and state laws have given cities the authority to pass these types of ordinances under the doctrine of Home Rule,” Wilson said. “The basic premise behind the Home Rule doctrine is to empower local governments (i.e., towns, cities and counties) to effectively govern themselves without interference from state government.”

County attorney Tommy Morgan raised the ambiguity issue during Monday night’s council meeting, along with a litany of other potential legal issues. 

Morgan said if a mask ordinance isn’t uniformly applied to all businesses and types of people, it could be challenged.

“[Because] this would be something that impacts a person’s physical nature, that would probably lead a court to give a strict scrutiny to those types of ordinances,” Morgan said. “An ordinance that says one class of business has different restrictions than others, in my opinion, could be constitutionally challenged.”

Enforcement Is Another Issue.

The council cannot require the sheriff to prosecute mask ordinance violations because it lacks that authority since the sheriff is an elected official. Code enforcement officials could not handle enforcement either since they handle specific cases, such as animal control and litter, Morgan said.

“The county could find itself with an inability to enforce it,” he said.

Morgan went on to cite other issues, such as budgetary constraints and infrastructure. For example, the city of Columbia is using parking attendants to enforce mask violations, but Fairfield County does not have parking meter attendants.

Also, the county would need a special ticket to serve as the charity document. A simple uniform traffic citation would not suffice, Morgan added.

Council members did not push for a mandatory mask ordinance.

Most said the most important thing they could do was to educate residents about the benefits of wearing masks, which health officials say help prevent passing the coronavirus to others. Council members also noted that in the media there’s a daily blitz about why masks should be worn when social distancing isn’t possible.

“If individuals in the county are not encouraged by now to wear face coverings, then I don’t know what else to say,” Councilman Douglas Pauley said.