Multiple Lowcountry Towns/Cities proposing mandatory mask ordinance

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BEAUFORT COUNTY, SC (WSAV) – The COVID-19 numbers in Beaufort County have lawmakers and the head of one local hospital concerned.

Now, local mayors are ready to take action.

“The only way to avoid another shutdown, avoid overwhelming the hospitals and stop this current surge and save lives is universal masking.”

Those are the words of Beaufort Memorial Hospital’s CEO Russel Baxley, which are now being echoed by many leaders around the county.


Thank you for the call today and allowing me to share my thoughts on universally masking in public.

Hopefully my perspective will be somewhat unique in that Beaufort Memorial has been on the front lines of this for the last 4 months, and if current trends are a precursor of things to come, things are about to get much worse.

We have currently seen our census of in house covid+ and patients under investigation double in the last week. We are seeing our ICU census creep back up with Covid+ patients as well. The volumes in the ER Covid tent and our express cares are overwhelming at times as things have picked up, as employers are sending multiple employees at one time to get tested, sometimes 40+ employees.

The organization is weary and fatigued, and thought in late May and into early June we saw a light at the end of the tunnel. This light seems to get farther and farther away every day.

This surge in positive cases is due directly to the lack of masking in public. I have seen the lack of masking personally and it is very disappointing.

I don’t believe it is reasonable to expect Beaufort or South Carolina to shut down again, but the only way to avoid another shut down is universal masking in public.

The only way to avoid overwhelming the hospital in a second wave is universal masking.

The only way to stop this current surge is universal masking.

The only way to save lives is universal masking.

If we are waiting on the hospital to fill up before we sound the alarms, then it is already too late, so the hospital is sounding them now.

Our objective should be to keep people out of the hospital, not wait until the hospital is full, but at this rate, it will not be long until that time comes as admissions and deaths are a lagging indicator and what we should be watching is the continued increase in positive tests.

And it is not just the elderly and the immunocompromised anymore… we are admitting the young and healthy.

We are learning very quickly that Covid-19 can affect all ages, and this false sense of invisibility is leading people down a very dangerous path.

So in closing, I will leave out all the clichés and plainly say, we each have a responsibility to protect one another during these unprecedented times and by not wearing a mask you are declaring yourself selfish and irresponsible, and we as leaders have to stand up for those trying to do the right thing and enforce universal masking before it’s too late.

Best regards,

Russell Baxley, MHA
President and CEO

Baxley sent those in a letter to Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling Wednesday

“its really difficult to turn a deaf ear on his resounding message and ask for help,” says Billy Keyserling, Beaufort Mayor.

Those words are part of the reason why Keyserling, as well as Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka and Hilton Head Mayor John McCann are all working with their Councils to present mandatory face covering ordinances.

“His words and message or words coming from him are so much more powerful as the administrator of a hospital are so much more powerful than a politician these days.”

Also powerful, the numbers.

DHEC’s new metrics put Beaufort County in the “high” category for all three COVID-19 transmission statistics.

State health officials say there have been more than 200 new cases per 100,000 people in the county in the past two weeks.

The number of cases in that same time keep increasing.

More than 10% of people tested in the last two weeks in the county have come up positive for the virus.

“Between the fear in the community and the numbers increasing it was the right time,” said Hilton Head Mayor John McCann.

Hilton Head Mayor John McCann believes now is the right time for the Town of Hilton Head to discuss a mask ordinance of its own.

“I have been encouraged by Town Council members to pursue a law mandating that face masks be worn. I believe it will help ease fears among the residents of our community about contracting the coronavirus and how it’s being spread and I fully anticipate the Town Council adopting something along these lines,” McCann said.

The ordinance would make all people wear masks when they go into many places, like grocery stores, pharmacies, doctor’s offices.

It would also require all retail store clerks and restaurant employees to wear masks on the job.

The Mayor has called a Town meeting for 8:30 am Monday for Council to discuss and vote on this proposal. Which according to Town leaders, has the backing of Beaufort County Sheriff PJ Tanner and the SC Attorney General, who earlier this week verified that a similar resolution by the City fo Greenville was legal.

“With the Attorney General earlier this week saying that local governments do possess this authority it means that if Town Council would vote to put this in place on Monday it would be enforceable,” said Asst. Town Manager Josh Gruber.

“If Town Council ultimately adopts an ordinance that has criminal penalties in it, that is something that the Sheriff’s Office would enforce,” continued Gruber.

Keyserling says he believes the Governor needs to act and make this a statewide ordinance. But he expects the State to leave it up to local authorities first.

“He had faith in the good judgment of South Carolinians. and that’s not to undermine their good judgment,” said Keyserling. “But I don’t think that South Carolinians have understood the gravity of the situation.”

If approved it would be a criminal misdemeanor with a fine as high as $500 and even jail time.

None of the local leaders say they want people to go to jail for a mask. But they do want to send a message, this is serious.

“This is it. if you don’t get over this there won’t be a Hilton Head when we are all finished,” said McCann. “I don’t mean to be panicking about it. This is very very important. This will go on for an extended period of time and it will go on even longer if we don’t have social distancing.”

While Hilton Head Town Council will discuss the issue Monday, Beaufort and Bluffton councils could pass something as early as Tuesday.

The spokesperson for Beaufort County tells News 3 its council is discussing a possible countywide ordinance but they are not taking any “immediate action” on the issue.

Their next official meeting is July 13.

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