Statement from Richland County Councilman Joe Walker on proposed mask ordinance

June 22, 2020

Following is a statement from Richland County Councilman Joe Walker, District 6, in reference to a proposed ordinance by the City of Columbia that would require citizens to wear masks in City limits.

“Fellow Council members, staff and citizens of Richland County,

Richland County Council has been made aware of a proposed ordinance by the City of Columbia that would require citizens to wear masks in City limits. The City has contacted Richland County Council to see if we would sponsor a similar ordinance, extending the radius of the order to all corners of Richland County.

While I can understand the concern around Covid-19 and the efforts taken/desired to soften its impact, I have serious reservations about the legality, enforceability of a dress code requirement by a local government. Unless a formal opinion from the Attorney General’s office states otherwise, this is not a power that even the Governor has, much less individual City or County Councils. This action would be dangerously infringing upon individual, constitutional rights and could be opening the County up to much greater liability and potential litigation than simply calling for, or passing a resolution, strongly urging our constituents to practice all protocols called for by the CDC (or even more specifically, wear a mask when in public).

Also, I’m concerned with enforcement. Have we asked our sheriff whether or not he deems this enforceable? It’s already a serious challenge to enforce social distancing, and if our embattled police and Sheriff Departments would now be asked to ticket anyone an officer sees without a mask, mayhem would ensue. And in the wake of recent protests, now is not the time to ask our police to engage in unnecessary, potentially unlawful confrontations with members of the public throughout their shifts.

The wise and appropriate course of action is to lead by example and observe the guidelines established. Mandating an unenforceable, confrontational infringement on personal liberties seems like the least responsible action a local government could pursue.

The City of Columbia can do as it pleases, and it can send its police to chase law-abiding citizens in a protest-filled pandemic as it sees fit. I suggest we stay as far away from that course as possible and not follow down a perilous path filled that would further strain our law enforcement men and women and come with a host of unforeseeable, potentially harmful unintended consequences as a result.”