On Thursday morning, the Spartanburg County Council held a special meeting to vote on whether to ask residents and visitors to wear face coverings – not just masks – at grocery stores and pharmacies in the county. The resolution adopted 3-1 was largely symbolic, as most measures by county and local governments have been amid a stunning spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases and escalating death totals.
There will be no enforcement, in other words, if someone walks into a supermarket without a mask on.
“We are not invoking the heavy hand of government,” said Council Chairman Manning Lynch. “We’re simply asking the good people of Spartanburg to do the right thing.”
The council’s move follows – and doesn’t – similar county-level moves by Dorchester and Beaufort counties. It also follows Spartanburg City’s vote a week ago. The difference is that whereas the prior actions were ordinances requiring masks or face coverings in certain public places, Spartanburg County’s action is a resolution encouraging people to keep their mouths and noses covered.
Councilman Roger Nutt did not vote because he is quarantined at home before a medical procedure. But he did attend the meeting via Zoom, where he expressed concerns with the idea of a governing body making decisions on whether anyone should wear a mask in public.
“Me, personally, would I recommend they wear a mask? I would recommend that they do whatever they need to do to make sure they’re safe … and to do their best to make sure that they don’t go out and intentionally spread disease,” Nutt said. “But when government steps in and makes decisions … it’s different.”
Councilman Bob Walker, the only no vote on the resolution, also said he encourages people to do what they feel is the best thing for their families and the community, but does not support government action.
“I am not in favor of government leading and trying to tell people what they should do or should not do,” he said.
Councilman Jack Mabry acknowledged that making a move to encourage face coverings is not easy to do, but said that looking at the numbers – the day before the meeting, South Carolina set a new daily COVID death record with 24 – demands some effort by government leaders to govern by example.
“We’re not asking you for an arm or a leg,” Mabry said. “Just a small piece of cloth to possibly protect you. If someone came in and sat next to you and was coughing and sneezing and you had a mask on the desk, would you pick it up or leave it alone and just take your chances?”
Michael Brown, the council’s only African-American member, said the resolution “Might seem symbolic to some” but agreed that it was a vital step in showing county leadership by example – especially to his Black and Brown constituents who disproportionately suffer some of the worst effects of COVID .
“We understand that you can’t legislate morality and you can’t force people to do things that some would want us to do,” Brown said. “But this is a step, obviously as a collective, to move this county in a direction that we feel it should go.”
Vice Chairman David Britt spoke on the pandemic’s effects on business, including the temporary closure of the county’s largest employer, BMW, in April. He encouraged wearing a mask, washing hands, and keeping social distance so that there does not have to be another round of shutdowns that would cripple businesses.
He said he has faith that residents will do the right thing with encouragement, not outright orders.
“I do believe in the people of Spartanburg,” Britt said. “That’s why we’re doing a resolution [as opposed to an ordinance].”
Lynch said he thinks its equally important that county leaders stand united on the message to be safe as it is for residents to take personal responsibility.
“We’re asking or good citizens to do the right thing,” he said.
Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan.