‘It’s not our role’: Why York County won’t set a new coronavirus mask requirement.

‘It’s not our role’: Why York County won’t set a new coronavirus mask requirement.
(Source: Tori Gessner, WAVE 3 News)

YORK COUNTY, S.C. (Rock Hill Herald) - York County leaders voted against an emergency mandate Monday night that would’ve required masks or face coverings in a wide range of public places.

York County Council members did vote to encourage the public to wear masks to help prevent COVID-19 spread, but stopped short of a requirement.

“Is there a risk? Yes,” said Councilman Joel Hamilton. “Do masks help to mitigate that risk? Absolutely. But where you start to lose me is when you start talking about an enforceable, individual mandate.”

Councilwoman Christi Cox said she doesn’t have enough county-specific data on COVID-19 from the state health department, and she believes business owners can and should have to make decisions themselves on what to require.

“I believe in the people of York County,” Cox said. “I believe in our small businesses. I believe they know best how to make decisions for themselves.”

The mandate that would’ve begun at midnight July 22 if passed, largely involves what people do inside businesses. Chairman Michael Johnson read off a list of companies that already have mask requirements of their own. If someone comes into one of those businesses and refuses to wear a mask, the business owner can call law enforcement.

“That’s common sense,” Johnson said. “That’s good business from our community. It is not overreach by the government, because the government didn’t mandate it.”

Because trespassing laws already allow business owners a route to require masks, Johnson doesn’t see a need to add another rule.

“It exists today,” he said. “Why would we recreate an ordinance we already have?”

Councilman William “Bump” Roddey began weeks ago with his call for the county to require masks. More than 50 municipalities statewide already have something similar in place, he said.

“Wearing this face mask recognizes that I’m concerned about your health, and you’re not willing to wear one says that you’re not concerned about my health if we’re in a room together,” Roddey said.

Roddey listened to a mostly anti-mask-rule crowd in the public comment period Monday. Only three of 13 speakers favored a new mask rule. The rest mostly argued a mask rule infringed on personal liberty. Roddey said smoking bans, seatbelt requirements, vaccination for school attendance and other examples could have the same infringment argument against them. Emails to the county on the issue, he said, were 49 in favor of a requirement to 24 against one.

“The one thing that we can’t argue with is that this is an infectious disease,” Roddey said. “It’s spread in multiple ways. A face mask is not a one size fits all, it’s not a cure all.”

Councilman Britt Blackwell said he understands both sides.

“It essentially comes down to those that are concerned about public health and those that are concerned about our liberties,” he said. “And it’s great to see people concerned about our liberties being taken away because, you know what? You’re absolutely right.”

Blackwell said there have been three decades of eroded liberties, as evidenced by a generation of young adults now.

“Their attitude as a generation is kind of, I believe, more an entitlement instead of earning it through hard work,” Blackwell said. “I believe, in playing victim instead of having personal accountability and responsibility. They’re even open to socialism. Who would have thought that 20, 30 years ago?”

Yet, Blackwell said, the liberty argument only reaches so far.

“But on this issue,” he said before voting with Roddey in favor of the new rule, “I’m concerned as a doctor about the public health issue.”

Councilwoman Allison Love helped Roddey get a mask rule on the agenda Monday night, but said she doesn’t agree with him on the issue. Love believes the county could save lives by outlawing smoking, but that it isn’t the county’s place. She takes the same approach with coronavirus.

“We could save a lot of lives that way,” she said of smoking. “It’s not our role.”

Love and others had concern about the sheriff’s office taking so many calls on mask compliance. Hamilton said the argument that the sheriff’s office would focus on education and not be spread thin responding to mask enforcement says something of what kind of mandate it would be.

“If we’re not going to do that then it’s just not a mandate,” he said. “What we’re doing, at best, is a strong suggestion. And I’m 100% behind that.”

Councilman Robert Winkler appreciates both arguments.

“There’s experts on every side of this, as we’ve seen tonight,” he said. “There are very passionate people on every side of this, as we’ve seen tonight.”

He agreed with most of council, that it isn’t the county’s place to tell business owners what to do.

“It’s their business,” Winkler said. “If they don’t want me in there with a mask on then I won’t go in, or I’ll put a mask on if needed at that point. I do not support mandating that.”

Johnson already joined Sheriff Kevin Tolson in June with a public call for voluntary mask usage. A mandate would’ve gone a step further.