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Greenville City Council mandates masks, launches business fund

Molly Hulsey //June 23, 2020//

Greenville City Council mandates masks, launches business fund

Molly Hulsey //June 23, 2020//

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One of few masked pedestrians in downtown Greenville carries takeout in early May. Now, even fewer sport masks. (Photo/Molly HulseyAll restaurant, grocery, pharmacy, retail, salon and barbershop employees in contact with the public within Greenville city limits will be required to wear masks starting at noon today — and could also be eligible for provisions from a mask stockpile and small business fund set aside by the City Council during last night’s meeting.

During the online hearing, Councilwoman Lillian Brock Flemming said the ordinance hit home as several of her family members have battled COVID-19. One, Flemming lost to the virus.

“If a small piece of cloth can make a difference in a person’s life or death, then I’m going to wear the small piece of cloth,” she said during the meeting.

Businesses in violation of the ordinance could pay a fine up to $100 for each day of violation. Visitors to grocery stores and pharmacies also will be required to wear face coverings under city law. Police — not stores — will enforce this $25 infraction, which will sunset within 60 days. Business owners will be expected to post signage notifying customers of the ordinance.

Citations will be issued as an “absolute last resort” according to Greenville city attorney Mike Pitts.

“I understand people talk about liberty and freedoms and not wanting to wear masks, but this is just a temporary provision, and for me it’s also an opportunity to protect those people who have to work when you go grocery shopping,” Councilman John DeWorken said during the meeting. “Ms. Flemming, I think we’ve all been hit by this to many different degrees, and right now, I have a dear friend and co-worker who’s fighting for his life on 80% ventilation, and what has struck me is that he is a healthy, 50-year old guy.”

The city distributed 50,000 masks from 8 a.m. until noon today at the Greenville Convention Center for businesses within city limits that signed the Greater Greenville Pledge, a list of social distancing protocols derived from guidelines provided by AccelerateSC and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Groceries and pharmacies were prioritized with a 500-mask limit.

The City Council also voted in a proposal for a $250,000 micro grant Small Business Boost Fund for restaurants and bars, hotels and motels, retail stores and other locally-owned businesses imperiled by the COVID-19-induced economic shutdown.  The $1,000 grants, awarded once on a first-come, first-served basis to businesses with less than $1 million in gross annual sales, stem from funding set aside for Unity Park. Donors can also contribute 10% of donations set aside for Unity Park toward the Small Business Boost Fund.

“It’s important to note that Unity Park, the largest thing we are undertaking right now, is funded from different sources, the largest of which is our hospitality tax fund that has been issued,” Councilwoman Dorothy Dowe said. “We are able to do (this) but through the work of our hospitality industry. These grants, these micro-grants, are directly tied to recognizing that effort of our hospitality vendors and rewarding them in the way that we can.”

Eligible businesses must have a physical storefront within city limits, employ two to 49 people and have a current business license. Enterprises with open tax liens or court judgements or that have filed for bankruptcy will not be eligible for the grant.

Not all participants in the public meeting supported the mask-wearing ordinance for customers with concern that it breached a state law against masks during a state of emergency. Pitts reassured viewers that masks used for COVID-19 were not identity-concealing face coverings and therefore would not cross swords with state law.

Marcus Blackstone, chief medical officer for the Bon Secours St. Francis Health System, commended the city for the move.

The hospital system is treating more positive COVID-19 cases today than any time since the pandemic reached the Upstate, he said, and pushed its limit on intensive care unit beds last week. The incoming patient population also tends to have more severe symptoms than earlier this spring, he said.

According to a recent WalletHub study, South Carolina ranks as the fourth state behind South Dakota, Wisconsin and Utah in enforcing the fewest social distancing restrictions. Greenville County, with 3,768 reported cases of the virus and an estimated 26,914 cases total, has the highest case count in the state.

“If you look at the over 900% increase in the younger population of positive cases in Greenville County, I think this speaks well to making sure that we do the things that we can do from our standpoint, as well as from an employer’s standpoint, to help them not only protect their employees but also protect their customers as well,” Blackstone said.