City writes 130 mask tickets during weekend enforcement blitz

Columbia officials recently warned that any grace period that may have existed as it related to enforcing the city’s mask mandate amid COVID-19 had come to an end.

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They weren’t bluffing.

The Columbia Fire Department issued 130 mask tickets during a three-night period from Thursday through Saturday. Each of those citations was for $100, courtesy of a beefed-up mask mandate the city approved earlier this month.

According to Mayor Steve Benjamin, there were 27 mask citations issued on Thursday night, 64 on Friday night and 39 on Saturday night. Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins says the vast majority of those tickets were written in the Five Points nightlife district.

The 130 citations over three days was a significant escalation in mask tickets for the city. Until the weekend blitz, the city had issued only about 50 citations since city council first passed a mask ordinance back in June.

“Over the course of when the ordinance first came into effect (in June), we hadn’t been writing many citations,” Jenkins told The State. “We were just educating and warning people. We were giving them an opportunity. But now that (COVID-19) is really spiking, we have to take some evasive actions.

“It’s not about writing tickets. It’s about getting people to look at the seriousness of what’s going on.”

Benjamin, the third-term Columbia mayor, implored people to wear masks as the pandemic worsens nationally. He warned the city will continue its heightened mask enforcement.

“Citizens are sick and tired of reckless behavior as loved ones perish,” the mayor said. “COVID cases continue to rise and our economy is disrupted. Patience has run thin, and citations and penalties will accelerate if folks continue to flout the law.

“Please wear your mask.”

On Sunday, for the sixth day in a row and the 11th day in the last 13, South Carolina reported more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19. There have been nearly 194,000 positive coronavirus cases in the Palmetto State since March, and nearly 4,000 people have died.

City officials have been worried about mask-wearing, particularly in Five Points, where long lines and big crowds at bars have been common on the weekend, even amid the global pandemic. During a recent council meeting, District 2 Councilman Ed McDowell recounted a recent trip to Five Points on a Friday evening.

“I was through Five Points (on Nov. 13),” McDowell said. “It was terrible. Literally terrible. … We are going to have to do something. … It was just totally horrific on (Nov. 13). No social distancing. Masks were being worn on person’s wrists.”

District 4 Councilman Daniel Rickenmann countered at that recent meeting that Five Points is not the only mask trouble spot. He warned that compliance also has been spotty at big box stores in the metro area.

Jenkins said fire department personnel monitored masks in various parts of the city this weekend, including big box stores and various hospitality districts. Still, the chief said “practically all” of the 130 citations were written in Five Points.

The fire chief said more tickets are coming.

“I don’t mind tipping my hand,” Jenkins said. “Yes, we are going to be out there.

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©2020 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

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