Columbia City Council’s debate over $500 mask-ordinance fines delayed

Columbia City Council’s debate over $500 mask-ordinance fines delayed

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Columbia’s mask ordinance is not scheduled to change, for now.

Currently, masks must be worn in most public settings and fines for mask violations are $100.

The council agenda for Tuesday, Feb. 16 shows city leaders were expected to debate amendments to the ordinance that would escalate punishments for individuals and businesses who do not adhere to the ordinance.

However, as of Monday morning, the agenda item was withdrawn.

The amended ordinance would change the following:

  • Expand applicable businesses to “all businesses,” whereas previously the ordinance enumerated restaurants, bars, retail stores, barbershops, salons, grocery stores and pharmacies.
  • Require businesses to enforce the ordinance on their property
  • Creates escalating fine schedule for violations of the ordinance
  • $100 for the first violation
  • $200 for the second violation
  • $500 for each subsequent violation
  • Those fines would pertain to individuals who violate the ordinance, and additionally business managers whose employees and/or customers violate the ordinance
  • Repeat violations within a business could result in its declaration as a public nuisance which could result in the loss of license or permits

The proposal will still be debated in executive session during the meeting, where comments will not be aired to the public.

Part of the withdrawal was concern about its impact on small businesses. Kristian Niemi owns Bourbon on Main Street and said he sent a letter to city leaders after he became aware of the proposal.

“I’m not going to ask my 80lb host to enforce a mask on a 300lb man from another state who’s decided he doesn’t want to wear a mask and he doesn’t have to. That’s not my place. That’s not our business,” he said.

He said businesses should not be deputized by the city, with the threat of losing their licenses.

“If strengthening it means putting the onus on us to enforce it, then you better come around and put a badge on my shirt, and one on every one of my employees that’s in charge of it before you decide to pass anything like that,” he said.

At-large Councilman Howard Duvall said he supports strengthening the mask ordinance, in part because of repeated student gatherings.

RELATED STORY Ι Columbia City Council strengthens and extends mask ordinance

“They’re not going to come out on a day like today that is cold and rainy, but Spring is coming and they will be coming back out, and if we do something we will have mass gatherings that we will have seen previously,” he said.

The Columbia-Richland County Fire Department reported a combined 23 mask violations the Friday, February 12 and Saturday, February 13.

Previously, the department had tallied 134 violations over three weekends in January, and another 42 the first weekend of February.

Niemi said he is supportive of the mask ordinance as-is, but said the proposal would too far.

“You’re trying to smash an anthill with a 4-by-4 pick-up truck in this [student] situation, you’re crushing all the other businesses too.”

Duvall said he’s supportive of the measure in general, but would like to see changes. He said fines for employers should be raised, and the number of violations to trigger a public nuisance should go up as well.

“I think [three violations] is too little. You go into some of our establishments that are on your TV often, you can get three violations of the mask ordinance in 10 seconds,” he said.

He said he expects the ordinance to be strengthened in some form when the council meets in March.

District 2 Councilman Ed McDowell said he is also supportive of strengthening the ordinance, but that it is worth an in-depth review.

“We want to make sure that small businesses are not drastically hit with this, in such a way that persons lose money. We don’t that to happen, we want folks to feel at ease, but we also want folks to be due diligent and serious about this issue,” he said.

The proposed amendment comes after the council extended the measure in early February. It’s set to expire on April 4.

At the time, Mayor Steve Benjamin said the council would work with city staff to create the amendments.

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