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Vote is close and opinions are loud as Aiken lifts mask mandate

Published: May. 5, 2021 at 11:24 PM EDT|Updated: May. 6, 2021 at 12:32 PM EDT
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AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - The city of Aiken was one of the few cities in our area that still had a mask mandate in place. But as of 6 a.m. Thursday, that is no longer required. City leaders voted Wednesday night in front of a packed crowd. The vote was close and the opinions were loud.

It was a rowdy night in the Aiken City Council chambers. After several meetings on the subject, city leaders lifted the mask mandate that’s been in place since July.

“I believe in civil liberties, and this violates that,” said one of the audience members, who held up a mask.

“I’d ask the cities and counties if they have restrictions out there to wrap it up,” said Gov. Henry McMaster.

The Aiken City Council did just that, but the decision was not unanimous. The vote was split 4-3. Some council members just wanted to get it done.

“It’s time to get it over with, let’s pass it as written,” said Ed Girardeau, City Council member, District 4.

Others wanted to wait for more people to get vaccinated.

“Given the folks that I think considering the first vaccine that given two three more weeks, we could probably see our [vaccination] numbers rise,” said Lessie Price, City Council member, District 2.

The week before the city’s mask mandate first went into effect, Aiken Regional Medical Center saw 148 new cases of COVID-19. Two weeks after it went into effect, the hospital saw 93 cases. Right now the two ZIP codes that make up the city of Aiken see fewer than 60 new cases a week.

“We are not there yet. We still have a long way to go before we can feel safe and protected as a population from emerging variants in South Carolina,” said Jane Kelly, assistant state epidemiologist for the south Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Joining the meeting over the phone the state assistant epidemiologist said DHEC’s recommendation is to continue mask requirements.

“We are still seeing about 600 or more cases, new cases, new diagnoses of COVID-19 per day” in South Carolina, she said.

Some of the doctor’s comments were met with laughs.

“I don’t mean to be fear-mongering,” Kelly said as the audience laughed over her.

Another comment was even met with groans.

“You’re taking my freedom away, and I resent that ... and believe it or not I love each one of you, and I would die for you, I would take a bullet for you. But this is nonsense,” said a woman who voiced her opinion to the council.

The ordinance still allows for businesses to make their own rules and decide if they want to require masks for customers. And city leaders say they will continue encouraging people to wear masks.

Meanwhile in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp continues to push for loosening restrictions, as well. Just Friday, he loosened more requirements, including the mask mandate for restaurant workers and distance requirements for places like theaters and gyms.

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