As B-L sits out controversial mask question, Upstate town leads boldly

Phillip Mishoe, Town Administrator of the Town of Central, wears his face mask outside Town Hall in the small Upstate community that adopted the safety measures July 1. Staff photos by Tony Baughman

CENTRAL, S.C. – Sitting at their sidewalk table in front of Jitters, a cozy little café tucked back on a quiet side street, Chris Williams and Jim Hanson nurse their mugs of coffee and discuss the uncertain state of college sports in the midst of a global pandemic.

A cloth face mask emblazoned with cartoon dinosaurs hangs untied under Mr. Williams’ chin as he enjoys his morning pick-me-up. A well-worn N95 mask belonging to Pastor Hanson – who leads a start-up church that until recently met inside Jitters – sits on the bistro table between their coffee mugs.

Rising heat from the glorious July sun hanging over the distant foothills makes spirited conversation from behind a cloth mask a bit too much to endure – even here in a community that on July 1 enacted an ordinance making face masks in public spaces absolutely mandatory.

The Town of Central in Pickens County, just five miles up the road from Clemson, has roughly the same population (5,100 folks) as Batesburg-Leesville. Central is a railroad town given its name in the 1870s because it sprung up along the train tracks almost exactly halfway between Charlotte and Atlanta.

Central is the birthplace of conservative political icon Sen. Lindsey Graham, who announced his ill-fated 2016 presidential bid on the Main Street here. About 74 percent of the electorate in Central voted for Donald Trump in the November 2016 general election, and the town has a 79.7 percent Caucasian population.

Fourteen days ago, a new face-mask ordinance went into effect here, approved unanimously by the predominantly white, predominantly conservative Town Council. How has this small Upstate cousin of Batesburg-Leesville responded to these new restrictions in this politically-charged era when stark ideological and social battle lines have drawn over the issue of wearing face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19?

“I’m going to tell you: I can’t stand wearing these masks,” said Central’s Town Administrator Phillip Mishoe. “I don’t like wearing these masks any more than anybody else, but if it’s going to help flatten this thing out and get us going in the right direction, I’m willing to wear it. You have a social responsibility to protect people around you.”

While taking a brief break from their face coverings over morning coffee at Jitters, townsfolk Chris Williams and Jim Hanson also see value in the new law.

“I think it’s the least we can do to be respectful to each other,” said Mr. Williams, who is something of a sports legend here in this tiny town almost a stone’s throw from Clemson’s Death Valley. In March, he retired after a 13-year career as athletic director at Southern Wesleyan University in Central, where he shepherded the Warriors’ sports programs to 17 national championships in the National Christian College Athletic Association.

“If I can help, I’m going to do my part,” Mr. Williams adds. “This is a pandemic, and I’m concerned that we take it seriously in that we try to work together to figure it out. I don’t have all the answers – nobody does – but if I can help somehow by wearing this mask, why wouldn’t I?”

As a person of faith, Pastor Hanson rejects the notion that some people have said they simply won’t wear face coverings because they will instead trust God to protect them from COVID-19.

“I think the Lord does keep us safe, of course, but the Lord asks us to use our God-given mind and ability He’s given us the ability to logically think things through,” he said. “And if we were just to ignore those things, I think that would be a mistake on our part and ultimately, He would question if we were doing the right thing.”

The Right Thing?

According to the Town fathers in Central, for the past 14 days, the “right thing” has been to wear a protective face covering whenever shopping, dining out or otherwise going where one might encounter other human beings. Central’s political leaders adopted an ordinance that mirrors the restrictions imposed by the City Council in adjacent Clemson.

Police Chief Steve Thompson keeps a box of disposable face coverings ion the front seat of his cruiser.

This, while just 19 miles to the south, the City of Anderson rejected a mandatory face mask ordinance, opting instead to issue a lukewarm resolution “encouraging” face coverings. And this, while 101 miles to the southeast, here in Batesburg-Leesville, the Town Council hasn’t brought either idea to the table even for reasonable discussion.

“We were looking at doing a resolution strongly encouraging people to wear masks to protect themselves and to protect other people,” Mr. Mishoe said of how the issue played out in Central “Then I got a call from a doctor, and he told me how bad COVID-19 was spiking in Pickens County.”

The Town Adminstrator then encouraged the physician to call Mayor Clyde “Mac” Martin, who would be among the six people on Central’s Town Council holding the power ultimately to adopt or reject a face mask ordinance.

After the doctor called Mayor Martin, he was invited to a special Council meeting to make the case for a stiff mask ordinance.

“We had a couple of Council members who were not in favor of a mask ordinance, but when the doctor got done talking, he had convinced everybody that it was something we needed to do,” Mr. Mishoe recalled.

Back here at home in Batesburg-Leesville, the outcry from some in the community to adopt a face mask ordinance – or even a less-restrictive resolution – as confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Lexington County skyrocket has fallen on mostly deaf ears. Batesburg-Leesville Town Councilmen Steve Cain and Bob Hall have called for decisive action from their Council colleagues to follow Lexington, Irmo, Cayce and West Columbia – as well as the nearby Cities of Columbia, Aiken and Greenwood – in adopting a mandatory face-mask law.

But they have been unable to wrangle even enough support – just four Council members in agreement – to bring the topic to the table for discussion. This month’s regular monthly meeting Monday night was finished in less than 17 minutes with Council approving a few routine housekeeping chores.

Batesburg-Leesville Mayor Lancer Shull said that he definitely sees the value in wearing masks to protect others, but he is loathe to make it mandatory by way of a Town ordinance. He believes that call, if it comes at all, should come only from Gov. Henry McMaster at the state level.

“Masks are effective if used properly, but it’s not a silver bullet,” Mayor Shull said. “Wearing a mask, for me, is about mitigating risk. But I have no interest in overwhelming our police department with tattletale phone calls, and I don’t want to see neighbor against neighbor in our town. I just want people to use their common sense.”

‘Enough Respect’

In the nearly half-month since the ordinance was adopted in Central, the townsfolk there largely have complied with the new law, Mr. Mishoe said, because they “get” the reality of making some sacrifices on the front end for the long-term public health – and economic health – of their community.

“Our economy and the City of Clemson’s economy depend on the college kids coming back,” he said. “I think when you frame it that way, the permanent residents here understood that we’ve got to do something or none of us are going to make it through this.”

Central is a predominately white, conservative enclave that becomes more culturally diverse when college is in session.

Eight months out of a typical year, Central and Clemson are both home to thousands of students who attend classes – and social events – around the neighboring communities. Most of those thousands of young adults have not been around town since March, when the spread of COVID-19 forced colleges and secondary schools to close down and convert to distance learning.

Now, as fall approaches and there is a push from some circles for things to get back to normal on college campuses and in school districts around South Carolina and the nation, concern rises in Central that the increased occurrence of coronavirus will only get worse without decisive action.

“For us, I think the biggest challenge is getting it through to the college kids that they’re probably going to test positive, but they’re probably not going to get sick,” Mr. Mishoe said. “They’re going to be carriers – and it’s so important for them to wear masks because they’ve probably already been exposed, and maybe they didn’t get sick, but they’re giving it to other people. You have a social responsibility to protect people around you. You don’t really realize how bad coronavirus is until you get it.”

When the college kids go home, more than 3,500 permanent residents still call Central home. One of them, a farmer who asked not to be identified “because they are a lot of idiots out there” who harshly criticize and attack those who wear face coverings, donned his mask early Tuesday morning to get in some grocery shopping at the Walmart Supercenter in Central.

“Just wear them. It ain’t hurting nothing,” the 70-something-year-old farmer said. “The mask ain’t protecting the person wearing it; it’s protecting the other people. You’re doing it for other people. And people who don’t have enough respect for other people and won’t wear it shouldn’t go shopping.”

Backlash?

The face mask ordinance in the Town of Central does have some teeth, allowing blatant violators to be fined, but the document also has a long list of exemptions.

“When you pass an ordinance like this, it’s extremely difficult to enforce,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you approach somebody and say, ‘Here, put a mask on’ and they say, ‘I have a medical condition that prevents me from wearing the mask,’ then that’s the end of the discussion.”

So far, the Town has issued no citations. In fact, police officers in Central have assumed the role more akin to public health educators and advocates for the science behind face masks.

“I put a box of masks in all of our police cars and told them if they see anybody that’s not complying with the ordinance, just give them a mask,” Mr. Mishoe said. “We kind of felt like if we passed the ordinance that people who normally wouldn’t wear masks would wear one because we have an ordinance and the rest of them hopefully would be shamed into putting one on.”

Police Chief Steve Thompson, who keeps his box of giveaway masks on the front seat of his cruiser, has been encouraged by the response from most of Central’s townsfolk. When he took preprinted signs to local businesses to hang on their doors and store windows, reminding patrons of the ordinance, he was warmly welcomed by almost all of the merchants

“We haven’t gotten much backlash on it at all,” Chief Thompson said. “The only issue we’ve had so far is some people – very few people – are saying we’re stepping on their rights because it’s not a state law. But the Governor opened it up for us to do a Town ordinance. It’s just educating people; they don’t understand the difference between a state law and a Town ordinance. But we haven’t had to write any citations. You supply them with a mask, they put it on.”

Now, at this point in the process, all Town officials in Central can do is watch and wait for the scientific research to quantify whether the ordinance has been truly effective from a public health perspective.

“My gauge is going to be when I hear that the number of positive cases starts to flatten out in Pickens County,” Mr. Mishoe said. “With the medical professional coming and speaking, he emphasized the importance of wearing a mask and how it prevents you from spreading it to someone else. When the cases go down, then we will know we did something right. We just doing the best we can and trying as hard as we can.”

But in Central, at least they’re doing something. They’re not waiting for coronavirus to control the governing; they’re being proactive and taking to the governing straight the ongoing fight against the disease and what this pandemic is doing to life as we know it in Central, South Carolina (and likewise, here in Batesburg-Leesville).