COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Columbia Fire Department Chief Aubrey Jenkins has written more than 45 citations for people not wearing a mask since June, more than half of them were handed out over Halloween weekend, he said.
Jenkins said for months his department was warning people gathering in large groups or not wearing their masks to put one on or to face a fine, but in the past couple of weeks, he has taken a stricter approach.
“Once upon a time, we were not issuing any citations, we were warning people and telling people, ‘make sure you have your mask on,’ the difference is in the last few weeks we have written some tickets and citations,” Jenkins said. “And the word is getting out now that people are actually writing citations, so people are now being more aware of the need to wear their mask,” he added.
The citations now also carry a heftier fine than they did originally. After Halloween, Columbia City Council passed a new ordinance raising the citation fee for not wearing a mask from $25 to $100. In addition, it is now required that people wear masks when they are not social distancing even when they are outside.
But writing tickets isn’t Jenkins' goal when he patrols the city over the weekend. In general, Jenkins said people and businesses are complying with COVID-19 guidelines and may only sometimes need a nudge to cover their nose and mouth.
“People are now being more aware of the need to wear their mask, but also I think some of the businesses are taking ownership and making sure people have their mask on,” he said.
Jenkins' approach is to remind people to wear a mask when they aren’t following the ordinance, but he will then come back and if those same people are still not wearing a mask, he will issue the $100 fine.
“I think it sent a stronger message out there that we got to wear our masks,” Jenkins said of the enhanced ordinance. “But, to me, it shouldn’t have to be that people are afraid or deterred because of a sign,” he said.
The fire chief also stressed it wasn’t just college students and bar-goers who aren’t wearing masks in public. In fact, he praised the college students for being well-mannered and keeping their masks on after he gives them verbal warnings.
He said some of his most recent citations have been for small store owners who aren’t wearing masks or aren’t making sure their customers are wearing them.
“Sometimes people tend to focus on the larger scale of what they see, but not realizing that there are smaller areas that can be just as spreading just as well because you have people coming in and out of these establishments,” he said.
Jenkins explained making sure people are adhering to COVID-19 guidelines is now a part of his department’s routine because making sure businesses follow city ordinances is part of a fire marshal’s job.
Jenkins said he understands people who are critical of issuing fines during tough economic times, and he tries to keep people’s struggles in mind.
However, he places his obligation to keep people safe over everything.
“I’ll take criticism from anybody for trying to save some people’s [lives],” he said.
If you want to file a report of a mask violation you can call 803-545-3700 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.