Are Ga., S.C. cities overstepping by rolling out mask mandates?

Published: Jun. 26, 2020 at 6:17 PM EDT
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With the Georgia and South Carolina governors saying they have no plans to mandate face masks in public to curb the spread of coronavirus, cities in the region are stepping in.

On the Georgia side, the city of Savannah is drafting an emergency order to demand that people wear a mask in public.

Meanwhile, city officials in Beaufort, S.C., passed an ordinance that will require face covers for anyone entering a public building, and the Hilton Head Island City Council voted to enforce an ordinance requiring the use of face masks in certain parts of the island.

A mask mandate in Charleston, S.C., goes into effect Wednesday, after city officials voted on it last week. In Columbia, S.C., a mask ordinance took effect Friday.

Is it legal for the government to mandate mask-wearing?

David Hudson, an attorney at Hull Barrett Law Firms, says yes.

″A local government is empowered under Home Rule to enact ordinances in order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens. I believe that a mandatory face-mask ordinance would be lawful” Hudson said.

Hudson, a constitutional rights lawyer, says local governments have what’s called “Police Power” that allows them to enact safety measures for the public.

“The boundaries of that would be you cannot exercise police power as a government if it infringes on some fundamental constitutional human right,” Hudson said.

Fundamental rights include free speech, freedom of religion, or equal protection laws.

″I do not know of any fundamental, constitutional rights that would be infringed by requiring someone to wear a mask that covers the mouth and nose” Hudson said.

Hudson compares it to other public health laws like Georgia’s seat belt law, or the Hands-Free law. The government can require you to wear a mask almost everywhere. Including at sporting events and even church.

“One requirement that the school district may pose, is that if you attend the game - assuming they allow fans- is that you have to wear a mask,” he said. ″I think you can even make it apply inside a church sanctuary without infringing upon freedom on religion.”

He says the only place the government can’t touch you is in your home.

“It would be impractical to have an ordinance that required wearing masks in your home you couldn’t do that,” he says.

As far as the penalty for breaking a face mask ordinance, Hudson says it would be classified as a minor offense. He also said it wouldn’t be hard to prove a violation.

“It’s pretty clear cut, cut and dry. Did you have it on or not? And if a policeman has his body cam with him, he’d have the evidence right there to prove rather or not somebody violated the order” Hudson said.

Augusta’s talks for a mask ordinance for Government buildings is still in limbo and there has not been talk about a city-wide requirement.

Copyright 2020 WRDW/WAGT. All rights reserved.

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