The Aiken City Council on Wednesday night decided to nix its citywide mask mandate, citing demonstrable progress in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, among other factors.
The city’s mask requirements now sunset at 6 a.m. Thursday. Private businesses and property owners can still require masks be worn, and nothing bars a person from wearing a mask if he or she so chooses.
“If somebody wants to wear a mask, wear a mask. If a business says you have to wear a mask, you have to wear a mask,” City Council member Ed Girardeau said during the special-called meeting. “That’s their prerogative. It’s their business. Don’t push that, let’s all get along.”
The controversial repeal passed 4-3, after an amendment to push back the expiration date failed. City Council members Gail Diggs, Lessie Price and Ed Woltz dissented.
All three have said they would be comfortable with a repeal in the near future, once more people are vaccinated. Memorial Day was floated.
“I want to make something perfectly clear – perfectly clear. I am in support of removing this. I am in support of removing the masks,” Price said Wednesday. “The question is the timing.”
Nearly 40,000 Aiken County residents had been fully vaccinated as of Wednesday morning. More broadly, about 32% of South Carolina residents had been fully vaccinated.
Mayor Rick Osbon and council members Kay Biermann Brohl, Andrea Gregory and Girardeau supported the rescission.
Girardeau and Brohl previously voted against enacting mask rules in Aiken; they have repeatedly expressed concerns about government overreach, not masks themselves. Osbon and Gregory were the swing votes Wednesday night.
The decision to end the mandate followed rounds of public comment, at points slathered in misinformation and at others punctuated by fed-up pleas.
“I believe in civil liberties, and this violates that,” said Jane Page Thompson. “I am an adult with wisdom and patience, and I can determine whether or not my health risks require me to wear one of these.”
Not a single person approached City Council on Wednesday to advocate for keeping the mandate in place.
“The sooner we can end it, the better,” Claude O’Donovan said, adding, “Let’s go back to some sense of normalcy in Aiken, South Carolina.”
City Council first enacted mask rules in July 2020, on an emergency basis, around the time the mayor tested positive for COVID-19. A more enduring mask mandate, one that did not need to be renewed every two months by supermajority vote, a high hurdle, was installed in November 2020.
Coronavirus cases in the Midlands skyrocketed around the busy holiday season – a little more than 2,000 new cases were reported Jan. 8, for example – but have since dramatically declined and plateaued. City staff has monitored the coronavirus caseload in and around Aiken, namely ZIP codes 29801 and 29803, according to City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh.
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster late last month urged governments to ax their leftover coronavirus-related regulations.
“Local cities and counties need to drop any remaining restrictions they have in place. It’s time to wrap this up or I will do it for them!” the Republican governor tweeted April 28. A recent memo signed by Bedenbaugh acknowledged the threat.
No statewide mask mandate was ever issued; McMaster considered such action unenforceable and cumbersome. Neither the city of North Augusta nor Aiken County have established a mask requirement. The governments, though, have recommended mask use.
Several municipalities across South Carolina, including Isle of Palms, Beaufort, Hilton Head Island and Easley, have lifted or are letting expire their mask mandates. Aiken is not an outlier in that regard.