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Cities, Towns and Facemasks

​The sight of facemasks is a central fact of life in 2020, along with discussions on their effectiveness. South Carolina does not have a statewide mandate on masking, but cities, towns and counties are at the forefront of this massive issue, and local government masking requirements are making a real difference.

Masking ordinances began in June, and by August, they covered more than 40% of the state's residents, with many more councils pursuing the route of resolutions encouraging, but not requiring, masking as a way to help in the public health emergency. Some cities got started with a resolution, and then moved to a requirement passed by ordinance.

In August, the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control reported data showing the effectiveness of requirements in slowing the spread of the disease. Four weeks after passing mask ordinances, those jurisdictions with a requirement showed a 46.3% decrease in total number of cases, while jurisdictions without the requirements saw an increase in cases.

The SC DHEC report included a statement from Dr. Linda Bell, the state's epidemiologist, who said the data "shows us what we already knew, wearing face masks works. We're strongly supportive of these local leaders' initiatives that are centered on protecting the health and well-being of their communities."

Masking was not the first time in the pandemic that local governments worked hard to improve the safety of their residents. In March, many municipalities enacted emergency ordinances requiring residents to remain at home or shelter in place outside of essential activities, such as shopping for groceries and visiting pharmacies. Following their lead, on April 6, Gov. Henry McMaster issued Executive Order 2020-21, the "Home or Work" Order, which had similar social distancing requirements for a limited time.

After the reopening of businesses and other spaces, statewide infections began to climb in early June, and cities and towns again took action. On June 22, Greenville City Council became the first to pass an ordinance mandating masks. Ordinances and emergency proclamations soon followed in dozens of municipalities from Beaufort to Winnsboro, as well as in a number of counties. The Municipal Association of SC crafted and distributed a model mask ordinance for councils to consider, and later offered guidance on how to extend mask ordinances.

Early on in the wave of mask ordinances, there were questions on whether a city council had the necessary authority to make masks mandatory within the city's boundaries. SC Attorney General Alan Wilson issued a June 24 statement declaring the ordinances lawful under the state's constitution. Article 8, Section 17 of the SC Constitution indicates that the constitution's provisions "and all laws concerning local government shall be liberally construed in their favor."

The premise, Wilson wrote, "is to empower local governments … to effectively govern themselves without interference from state government."

He also noted restrictions that local governments could face when making decisions through ordinances. These include cases where the General Assembly has preempted a particular type of law, instances of arbitrary ordinances — such as passing a mask ordinance in the absence of a public health emergency — or instances of ordinances violating constitutional rights.

Find the Municipal Association's sample mask ordinance and other COVID-19 resources online.