Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said Tuesday that he would be in favor of allowing the city’s ordinance requiring residents to wear masks in public places expire later this month.
The city’s current mask mandate connected to the coronavirus pandemic is in place until May 16. City Council met Tuesday and took no action on extending the measure. Council meets again on May 11. The city has had a mask ordinance in place since July, and has extended it several times, most recently in March.
Fines for violations of the Columbia mask law began at $25, but the law was beefed up in November, raising the fine to $100. Marshals with the Columbia Fire Department have issued more than 500 mask tickets since July.
“I think we are going to have to do some very serious dialogue between now and the expiration of our ordinance,” Benjamin said. “My hope is, as we go forward, that we will shift from a mandatory mask policy to a deep dive, very aggressive vaccination strategy. … I’m leaning toward the expiration of the (mask) ordinance. I think it is prudent.”
Benjamin said he would be willing to entertain a city initiative to offer rides to residents to get a vaccine, and is willing to explore partnering with health care providers to take vaccines door-to-door to reach Columbians.
“We are going to have to step up and ask people to be personally responsible for the way forward,” the third-term mayor said. “We’ve come way too far and lost too many souls to fall backward. I would recommend a shift in our strategy … to a very, very aggressive deep dive to make sure the vaccine gets to everyone possible.”
Richland County has a mask ordinance in place for the unincorporated areas of the county until early June.
The city’s current ordinance says that face masks “which cover the nose and mouth shall be required in all public places within the city. All persons entering a commercial establishment in the city must wear a face covering while inside the establishment. A face covering must also be worn in situations where distances between people change frequently such as a busy sidewalk, waiting area, or popular outdoor area where it is impractical or impossible to maintain six feet of distance at all times.”
COVID-19 numbers have trended downward in South Carolina, particularly as vaccine availability has increased. On Tuesday, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control reported less than 300 confirmed new cases and zero new deaths. COVID hospitalizations in South Carolina have fallen to 386 patients, down from as many as 2,400 in January.
Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine showed some hesitancy about letting the mask law expire this month.
“I know you can’t mandate a lot of stuff, but it’s concerning,” she said. “Until we have more people vaccinated, I’m concerned.”