Who pays the fine under Columbia’s new school face mask order?

Columbia’s emergency school face mask ordinance will be enforced by the threat of a fine if it isn’t followed. But who will end up paying the $100 ticket?

In announcing the mask ordinance on Wednesday, Mayor Steve Benjamin eliminated many of the likely suspects one by one. City officials won’t fine a child under the age of 14 who isn’t wearing a mask in school. They won’t fine the teacher in the classroom. They won’t even fine the child’s parents.

Instead, the language of the ordinance puts the responsibility on the school administrator, tasking them with keeping the occupants of their school masked. That could set up a challenge between the city’s rules and a state law designed to prevent public school personnel from enforcing mask mandates during the 2021-22 school year.

The text of the city’s emergency ordinance defines the person responsible for a violation as the “any individual associated with the school or business who has the control or authority and ability to enforce the requirements of the Ordinance within the school or business, such as a principal, vice principal, administrator, staff, owner, manager or supervisor” or anyone else who can “ensure that the requirements of this Ordinance are met.”

But Benjamin also said Wednesday that the city’s preference will be to avoid issuing the $100 fines for the first offense. Like with Columbia’s previous citywide mask mandate, enforcement officers will remind violators of the city’s mask ordinance and encourage them to cover their faces.

“We know we’re dealing with kids,” Benjamin said.

The rule will be enforced by fire marshals inside the city’s schools, again similar to the city mask ordinance that was in force from last summer until this past May, when it was quashed by an executive order from Gov. Henry McMaster.

The mayor said that the city will also provide masks, so that parents don’t have to worry about providing masks for their children, and the school district won’t spend any money on masks and thus risk violating state funding rules.

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But the ordinance also allows the city to impose stricter penalties on businesses. Repeated violations could lead to an establishment being declared a public nuisance, and having permits or business licenses revoked, the ordinance says.

Some officials in Richland 1, the district that operates most of the schools that will be affected by the ordinance, want to go further. School board vice chair Cheryl Harris said Thursday she will ask her school board colleagues to extend Columbia’s mask rules to all Richland 1 elementary and middle schools outside the city limits as well.

Harris said the district could use private sources that have already secured masks for students in order to get around state restrictions.

Richland 1 Superintendent Craig Witherspoon said Wednesday that the school district will continue to encourage all of its students to wear masks, and to get vaccinated when they can. The district initially kept its previous mask requirements in place after Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order in May ending school mask mandates.


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