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Columbia residents will continue to be required to wear masks in public places amid the still-roiling global pandemic.

On Tuesday, Columbia City Council approved a two-month extension of its face mask ordinance, taking the law through early April. Columbia has had a mask ordinance in place since last June, and has extended it a number of times.

Meanwhile, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said Council will likely return within the next couple of weeks with an ordinance that would strengthen the mask law with penalties for repeat offenders. He said city staff would be working on the language of that law in the coming days.

Per the ordinance passed Tuesday, face masks “which cover the nose and mouth shall be required in all public places within the city. All persons entering a commercial establishment in the city must wear a face covering while inside the establishment. A face covering must also be worn in situations where distances between people change frequently such as a busy sidewalk, waiting area, or popular outdoor area where it is impractical or impossible to maintain six feet of distance at all times.”

That portion of the ordinance does not apply to religious establishments, though the city “recommends” the use of face coverings during religious services.

The face mask law also mandates that “all restaurants, bars, retail stores, barbershops, salons, grocery stores, and pharmacies in the City must require their employees to wear a face covering which covers the nose and mouth at all times while having face to face interaction with the public.”

Initially, Columbia’s face mask ordinance came with a $25 fine for violators. However, amid stubbornly high COVID-19 numbers, the city beefed up the ordinance in November, making it a $100 fine. It is considered a civil penalty, not a criminal offense.

The city’s fire marshals have been tasked with enforcing mask violations, and have conducted a handful of “zero tolerance” enforcement efforts in the city’s entertainment districts. One of those came during the weekend of Jan. 22-23, when the city doled out 112 mask tickets, mostly in Five Points. The city has issued 361 mask tickets since June, according to Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins.

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Tuesday’s measure also extended the suspension of normal meeting operations for city council. The council has been meeting virtually, rather than in-person at City Hall, since last spring. Mayor Steve Benjamin has said he’s hopeful that perhaps council could resume in-person meetings in the early summer.

COVID-19 cases and deaths have piled up in South Carolina. As of Feb. 1, the Palmetto State had almost 400,000 confirmed cases of the virus, and more than 6,500 confirmed deaths since last March, per the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Benjamin said there is much work to be done in beating back COVID-19.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Benjamin said. “I would encourage everyone, and you may get tired of hearing it, but as soon as the vaccine is available, please take it. And keep doing the basics: Wash your hands, social distance and wear your mask. Let’s figure out how we are going to do our part to get through these dangerous times.”

Meanwhile, vaccine distribution continues across South Carolina. According to DHEC data, as of Feb. 1, the state had received 423,150 doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, and had given 315,331 of them (252,171 first doses, and 63,160 second doses), for a 75% utilization rate.

Originally published February 3, 2021, 2:00 AM

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Topics #Aubrey Jenkins #BioNTech #COLUMBIA #Columbia City Council #Department of Health #mask law #Mayor #Pfizer #retail stores #South Carolina #Steve Benjamin