Horry County Council votes to not extend mask mandate

Grand Strand

CONWAY, S.C. (WBTW) – Despite rising coronavirus cases, Horry County Council voted Tuesday night to allow its mask requirement to expire on Oct. 30.

The mandate is part of a state of emergency, which must be reauthorized every 60 days. The requirement began in July to curb a surge in COVID-19 cases. Despite Tuesday night’s vote to let the emergency ordinance about masks expire, Horry County remains under a state of emergency.

The ordinance requires people entering retail stores, restaurants, and bars to wear a face covering. Masks aren’t required while eating or drinking. The rule also makes exceptions for religious reasons and safety issues, among others. 

The rule only applies to unincorporated parts of the county. Cities and towns have their own rules like North Myrtle Beach, where city council extended its mask ordinance Monday.

Horry County’s mask mandate allows violators to be fined $25 for the first offense, $50 for the second offense, and $100 for each additional violation.

County council’s decision was made after a tense and sometimes confusing council meeting.

“Damn politics when it comes to life and death,” said Harold Worley, a council member representing North Myrtle Beach. “The numbers are going in the wrong direction, guys, for us to be doing this.”

Council member Johnny Vaught, who represents parts of the Forestbrook community, disagrees.

“We have things well under control and I don’t see any sense in us staying under a state of emergency,” Vaught said.

COVID-19 cases in communities with mask requirements dropped more than 44%, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) said in August, but cases have recently surged in Horry County. 

According to DHEC data, the seven-day average has more than doubled in the last month in Horry County. On Sept. 19, the county’s average was 34.7 cases, while that number was at 76.6 cases on Monday. The county’s seven-day average, however, has slightly decreased in the last week.

Confusion during several votes dominated Tuesday night’s meeting, as “strongly encouraging” mask use over a mandate was discussed.

“If there was confusion, I’m positive it was cleared up at the end before anybody voted,” said council chair Johnny Gardner.

Randy Webster, who’s the assistant county administrator overseeing public safety, says he’s worried COVID-19 in Horry County could soon be as bad as the July and August peak.

“I’ve got some concerns that we’re going to get back into a case where supplies might become short again,” said Webster. “Our first responders, EMS [and] the hospitals, they’ve already started looking at field hospitals again and it’s just the progression of this is just like we saw before.”

Gardner says the requirement was not enforceable, especially in rural areas.

“We’re not saying anything is over,” he said. “We’re just ending the mandate. Like the governor says, ‘Wear your mask. Wear your mask. Wear your mask.'”

Gardner also says it’s unlikely he’ll call a special meeting to extend the mask requirement before it expires, but he’s also open to another one in the future if the virus’s spread gets worse.

News13 received the following statement from Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune:

Since the county’s decision only affects the unincorporated areas, it will not impact the city’s ability to enforce our order. I do think the county’s decision will be confusing to many, since the Governor’s order requiring masks in restaurants is still in effect. It would be much less confusing if we all were cohesive on the issue, especially because our cases in the entire county are rising.

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