ROCK HILL, S.C. (Rock Hill Herald) - Rock Hill has officially ended the citywide face mask requirement in an effort to fall in line with the governor’s new executive order.
Monday night, the Rock Hill City Council voted 5-2 to rescind the ordinance, first passed in July, which required people to wear face coverings in food and retail establishments.
In keeping with South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster’s new executive order, which nullifies local mask rules, council voted to adopt a resolution that encourages individuals in the city to wear face coverings in instances when social distancing is not possible.
McMaster issued the order in early March that no longer requires people to wear masks or face coverings inside state-owned buildings or restaurants when not eating or drinking. McMaster’s order, passed on March 5, will “supersede and preempt any such local ordinance, rule, regulation, or other restriction,” according to the official language.
During city council’s March 8 meeting, city attorney Paul Dillingham said under McMaster’s new rule, Rock Hill could no longer enforce its mandate. At that time, council members voted to lift enforcement of the mandate to allow the public a chance to comment before any changes were made to the mandate itself.
“I do think our governor made a political decision, but I do understand that then, the legal opinion of our city attorney is the correct one that we need to follow,” Councilwoman Kathy Pender, who voted to terminate the rule, said Monday night. “You can pass COVID without having symptoms and that’s what makes it difficult, and that is why I will continue to wear a mask and I really encourage others in Rock Hill to do so.”
UNMASK ROCK HILL
The city did not strictly enforce the mandate in the first place, Councilwoman Nikita Jackson said. A group of residents against the mandate, known as Unmask Rock Hill, had routinely attended council meetings in protest without wearing masks.
Councilmen Kevin Sutton and John Black also consistently did not wear masks during meetings while the ordinance was in effect.
“If we do away with this mask mandate, those people, those businesses, their employees have no protection and by right we should be able to protect the least of us,” Jackson, who voted against terminating the mandate, said. “Once this mandate is taken off the books, anybody can walk in any store without a mask and have no regard for the employees at that business.”
Monday night, hundreds of protesters, part of Unmask Rock Hill, gathered inside City Hall to rally against the mandate. Many of them carried signs that read “Bring smiles back” and “Let freedom ring.” None of them wore masks.
Minutes before Monday’s meeting began, the group chanted “No more masks!” outside council chambers.
“I have breathing difficulties ... this mask mandate robbed me of my God-given right to breathe,” Dallas Rogers, who lives just outside the city limit, told The Herald before the meeting. “I’m here to support all the people who want to get away from an unconstitutional mask mandate.”
Several of the protesters argued that the mandate has done more harm than good by dividing the city’s residents.
“We understand why this was put in place originally, but it’s expired,” Rebecca Shook told The Herald. “We’re ready to take off our masks and smile at our neighbors and enjoy freedom. Enjoy our lives more. Get back to normal — whatever normal looks like in the future.”
‘ABOVE WHERE WE NEED TO BE’
Many of those who spoke in favor of rescinding the mandate pointed out that in recent months, new reports of coronavirus cases have been on a steady decline statewide. However, Dr. Martha Edwards, a pediatrician in Rock Hill, argued that York County’s numbers are not declining like the rest of the state.
York County, along with nine other counties, still has a “high incidence” rate for new coronavirus cases, according to South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control.
“If we take away the mask mandate, we are going to be allowing viruses to mutate,” Edwards said. “We’re going to be decreasing the efficacy of our vaccines. We only have 13% of people in York County that are fully vaccinated at this point.”
So far, there’s been just above 58,500 first and second doses administered in York County. About 22% of the county’s adult population — or 46,180 residents — have gotten at least one dose, according to South Carolina’s dashboard. The county has about 212,000 residents 15 and older.
“Please realize that although we’ve decreased, we’re still way above where we need to be,” she said. “There’s still a lot more potential for more people to have their lives devastated by this virus”,
Dr. Ernest Brown, CEO of North Central Family Medical Center, said the mandate gave the center, on Saluda Street, a stronger basis for requiring patients to wear masks. Without the mandate, Brown said he’s worried the center will struggle to protect those who come to the medical center.
“We see almost 11,000 patients a year and we try to protect them, as well as the 917 employees that we have,” Brown said. “Now, whether you like it or don’t like it or agree with the research or don’t agree with the research, you have to go with what you got. And right now, that’s all we have — the masks and a few other things to try to help protect them.”
Although the city’s ordinance has been terminated, the resolution passed Monday recommends that those in the city wear masks and social distance until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and DHEC advise otherwise. The resolution will still offer some level of protection against the virus, Mayor John Gettys said.
“The fact of the matter is, as a community, I think we’ve done a great job to get to this point,” he said. “The numbers have been lower per capita here than most anywhere else and that’s mainly because of people of Rock Hill — as it always has been.”