By Ruben Lowman
Horry County Council voted last week to end the countywide face mask mandate that has been in place for the past several months in order to slow and prevent the spread of COVID-19 throughout the area. Councilmembers also voted in favor of ending the county’s state of emergency designation. The current ordinances will remain in effect in all unincorporated areas in Horry County, including Little River and Longs, until October 31, when they will expire.
Chairman Johnny Gardner summed up the proceedings with a simple explanation. “The county council decided enough is enough, we don’t want the mandate,” he said.
“I don’t think a state of emergency continues to exist,” Councilman Johnny Vaught said.
Last Tuesday night’s meeting was confusing for the public and councilmembers alike, as the wording of the ordinances forced the council to reconsider the mandate after initially voting it down. Per South Carolina law, the facial covering ordinance would have needed a supermajority in order to pass, something that appeared unlikely given the somewhat-charged dialogue that has taken place concerning the mandates.
Confusion led to the councilmembers convening during a break in the meeting to clarify exactly what they were voting on. After the break, the council reconsidered their initial vote, with the face mask and state of emergency ordinances voted down 8-4.
Councilmen Al Allen, Orton Bellamy, Cam Crawford, Chairman Gardner, Danny Hardee, Paul Prince, Tyler Servant and Vaught all voted in favor of ending the emergency ordinances. Councilmen Harold Worley, Bill Howard, Gary Loftus and Dennis DiSabato voted to extend the mandate further in order to protect the health and safety of the public, but were unsuccessful.
Both sides relied on much of the same arguments as they have over the past several months since the facial covering ordinance first took effect in early July, those in favor of the mandate citing the benefits to public health and those opposed saying it is impossible to enforce throughout the entire county.
Councilman Worley, who represents District 1 here in North Myrtle Beach, was effusive in his defense of the ordinance, saying that people’s lives were at stake in the fight against the coronavirus, it is part of the council’s responsibility to protect the wellbeing of its citizens and that politics should play no part in determining the best way to do so.
“The numbers are going in the wrong direction for us to be doing this. We have friends in North Myrtle Beach that are dying from this COVID. I see you folks out there as my family,” Worley said. “As a community leader I believe that what we should do is do what we believe in our hearts is the right thing. Damn politics when it comes to life and death, and I believe that this mask can’t hurt and could possibly help.”
Chairman Gardener commented that many of the municipalities within Horry County currently have facial covering mandates that make one solely for the unincorporated areas a bit redundant. He also said that some people are becoming disinterested and fatigued with being required to wear a mask everywhere they go.
“The county has protections in place throughout the cities, throughout the state buildings, in the court room where I practice,” Gardner said. “You have to wear a mask just about everywhere you go. The problem we’ve seen is some of the people aren’t wearing it right, a lot of people are tired of wearing it.”
Since the county implemented the face mask mandate in the summer, the amount of COVID-19 cases has dropped significantly, and health officials cite the use of a facial covering when in public and in contact with others to be a big factor in preventing the virus outbreak to continue and spread further.
“I believe [what] the doctors are saying,” Worley said. “Why would those guys lie to us?”
Despite the mandate ending, Gardner said that he and his staff will continue to wear their masks and encouraged citizens within Horry County to wear their masks when going out in public.
“We are encouraging people to wear a mask. We’ll continue wearing masks after October, end of November, until it’s safe,” Gardner said. “Right now, we’re not saying anything is over, we’re just ending the mandate. Like the governor said – “wear your mask, wear your mask, wear your mask.”