Beaufort County SC anti mask groups protest COVID-19 rules

Enika Vania

A growing movement opposing the COVID-19 face mask requirements that blanket Beaufort County is applying sustained pressure on local leaders while questioning the public health consensus on how to battle a virus that has killed nearly 90 people and infected over 6,000 locally.

The small, but vocal local group of mask mandate opponents has commandeered public comment and spammed livestreams of local government meetings, protested bi-weekly in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island and — briefly — scored a recent victory with the county’s governing body.

Though the Facebook groups at the forefront of this new activism — a now global phenomenon — operate under a few different names, they appear to be led by an overlapping group of people with a common objective: eliminate mandatory mask requirements in Beaufort County.

Some local leaders say they’ve been bombarded with thousands of calls and emails both in support of and in opposition to mask mandates.

“I’ve had more contacts through email on this issue than any issue before,” said Hilton Head Town Council member Tom Lennox.

A sign in the door of a convenience store on Ribaut Road tells customers face masks are required as part of city of Beaufort rules enacted July 1 to slow the spread of COVID-19. Stephen Fastenau [email protected]

Online, the anti-mask rule campaign is the most visible. It flies in the face of the recommendations of every major health agency, including South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

Masks, used in conjunction with other preventative measures, slow the spread of COVID-19 by preventing respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto other people, these organizations have said. In Beaufort County, mandates have coincided with slowed disease transmission in every ZIP code that implemented one, according to an analysis by The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette that echoed previous DHEC findings.

“With our children’s safety and education at stake, wearing a mask isn’t a burden or intrusion,” wrote DHEC’s top epidemiologist in an op-ed in The State newspaper this month. “It’s a duty.’

But mask opponents have attempted to sew doubt and exploit cracks in this public health consensus, even citing CDC studies in their crusade. They point to inconsistent messaging by government officials, some of whom initially discouraged mask use to preserve stocks of equipment for medical providers.

Another strain of activists claim to support masking but oppose government mandates requiring the practice in public spaces. But sharing the group’s pages are also vitriolic conspiracy theories from corners of the internet that have spread anti-vaccination screeds and unproven treatment plans for the coronavirus.

As local governments in Beaufort County continue to revisit decisions about mask requirements, the opposition from some residents shows no signs of stopping.

A small group of protesters hold signs and wave at passing cars Tuesday, Sept. 8 at the four-way stop at May River Road and Boundary Street in Old Town Bluffton. The group was protesting Bluffton’s mask ordinance. Kacen Bayless [email protected]

‘Drip, drip’ method briefly pays off in Beaufort County

In a surprise move earlier this month, Beaufort County’s vote to extend its face mask requirements failed. Though a seven-person majority voted in favor of the extension, the emergency measure required eight votes to pass.

During the time leading up to the vote, the livestreamed meeting on Oct. 12 garnered over 660 comments on Facebook from 42 different people. Only two commented in support of the mask ordinance.

Council members took note of the influx. Some were bewildered by the reaction.

“I’m on Facebook and the comments are coming in rather rapidly … It’s more than just a couple of folks,” Council member Chris Hervochon said during a chaotic virtual meeting a week earlier. “It’s really quite remarkable … I think it’s important to acknowledge that the public is being heard and they are being seen.”

The Charles Fraser statue in Compass Rose Park on Hilton Head Island has now acquired a Hilton Head Island face mask as seen on Thursday, April 16, 2020 for personal protection against the coronavirus. While the individual that protected the founder of Hilton Head is unknown, it stopped the few walking or biking past the closed park to take a picture. Drew Martin [email protected]

Several of the county’s recent meetings have been shared in advance on pages run by mask opponents. That may have been by design.

A website called “No Mask Required HHI” sums up the tactics of some anti-mask activists in the county by citing the writing of California-based mask critic Peggy Hall, whose videos have spread across the country.

Hall advocates for a “drip, drip, drip method” to “bombard these officials with info they cannot ignore.” The Hilton Head website includes over 100 questions to send to local politicians, one at a time, and displays contact information for state and local elected leaders, including county council.

The county’s decision against extending the ordinance was met with praise from mask mandate opponents, but was condemned by many in the community.

After the vote, Beaufort Memorial Hospital CEO Russell Baxley pleaded with local municipalities to keep their mask requirements in place. In a letter, Baxley acknowledged that local officials might be under pressure to get rid of the mask rules after the county’s decision, but said the drop in new COVID-19 cases was evidence that masks work.

He also directly referenced the group of residents lobbying against mask rules.

“The anti-maskers are pushing very hard to lift the ordinances with the belief they were never necessary in the first place and/or this is under control and we should not need to mask anymore, but my question is what if they are wrong?” Baxley wrote.

“What happens if we see another surge, the question everyone should be asking is are we prepared for another surge, and that answer is no.”

One week after the vote to extend mask rules failed, Beaufort County backtracked and voted 8-3 to keep the rules in place until Dec. 19.

Who is fighting mask requirements in Beaufort County?

Beaufort County Council’s experience was the culmination of a brewing anti-mask movement in the Lowcountry.

Following emergency ordinances requiring masks in most indoor public spaces from every local government in Beaufort County this summer, a loose coalition of groups sprung up in formal opposition.

They began staging unmasked roadside protests.

Members of the South Carolina Liberty Coalition — a Facebook page christened in early September — lined an intersection in Old Town Bluffton with signs reading “NO MASK” and “YOUR LIBERTY MATTERS.”

The page would go on to ruffle feathers with a pair of videos showing organizers defying mask requirements in Bluffton businesses and confronting employees who attempted to enforce them. The group has also promoted the unfounded theory that masks make people sick.

COVID19_HH Sign.jpg
A digital billboard on U.S. 278 in front of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, is one of several on Hilton Head Island informing residents and visitors that a face covering a legal requirement. The sign rotates the message: Please be safe. Wear a mask. It’s the law on HH Island. Drew Martin [email protected]

Another group, “Don’t Tread on Me Hilton Head Bluffton,” is “fed up with our government’s overreach,” according to their website.

The site’s administrator, Bluffton resident Danny Gause, told the newspapers he does not define himself as an “anti-masker.” Instead, he said his group has focused on local government’s “complete overreach of power” when it comes to issuing mask mandates, advocating for “freedom of choice” in the face of “tyranny.”

He said masks provide people with a “false sense of security.”

Both groups have posted videos and links to anti-mask diatribes by prominent anti-vaccination advocates, including TV and film producer Del Bigtree, among others. In another video on the Liberty Coalition’s page, English conspiracy theorist David Icke — whose bogus claims about a connection between the coronavirus and 5G cellular networks have resulted in social media platforms censuring his accounts — refers to the “illusion pandemic of COVID-19.”

Facebook has flagged many of the posts as “false information.”

False information.JPG
A post on the South Carolina Liberty Coalition – Bluffton Chapter’s Facebook page from late September is flagged by the social media platform as “false information.” South Carolina Liberty Coalition – Bluffton Chapter Facebook Screenshot

Asked about his site’s promotion of anti-vaccination advocates, Gause said, “there’s no proof that vaccines cause certain things in children and there’s no proof they don’t” and encouraged residents to “do their own research.”

The groups have also promoted selected excerpts of articles in scientific journals to support their cause, some of which have been forwarded to elected leaders or included in public comment at meetings.

Robert McKeever, a health communications expert and professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, says this is nothing new.

“For as long as people have studied misinformation, or outspokenness, there are several instances where a small but vocal minority are fueling the discourse surrounding a controversial topic,” he said. “And oftentimes those are the ones who dominate the discussion even though the vast majority are not in that view.”

About 74{5565a835e8436fceab45047feb07d9b08a17131f67bfa451fc3dea7831c5a73d} of Americans polled by National Geographic and Morning Consult this month said they “always” wear a face mask when leaving their home, with only 8{5565a835e8436fceab45047feb07d9b08a17131f67bfa451fc3dea7831c5a73d} saying they “rarely or never” do.

McKeever has worked with colleagues to study beliefs related to anti-vaccination movements. In that case, he said a small minority has not only driven discussion but threatened to change public policy, pointing to attempts in multiple states to allow vaccine exemptions for children.

Some local medical professionals were surprised at how polarized face coverings have become.

Across the board, experts are saying with a “very, very high degree of certainty” that masking and social distancing help slow the spread of COVID-19, said Dr. Kurt Gambla, chief medical officer at Beaufort Memorial Hospital.

“The rights of the individual don’t trump the rights of the greater society,” he said. The “ultimate violation” of someone’s civil rights is to have reckless behavior that puts them at risk of contracting a disease that could be deadly, Gambla added.

USE FOR PRINT: COVID19_maskedshoppersdm01.jpg
Shoppers leaves the Kroger at Belfair Commons in Bluffton on Thursday, April 30, one with a mask and another in gloves. Drew Martin [email protected]

Municipalities remain steadfast behind mask rules

While Beaufort County residents opposing masks may dominate Facebook during live-streamed public meetings, local officials say at least an equal number of people have expressed support for local mask rules.

The overwhelming majority of outreach to Hilton Head Town Council member Lennox is in favor of masking, he said.

“Masks and other self-imposed best practices have had the desired effect on limiting the spread of the virus. That’s good,” Lennox added.

David Ames, another Hilton Head council member, said he’s seen regular outreach from a small group of residents who are passionate in their opposition to mask rules. He met with some of them.

“I have listened to these people to the point that I know I’m not going to be able to change their mind,” he said, adding he relies on expert advice from DHEC, the CDC and local doctors to inform his votes.

Hilton Head Island Mayor John McCann distributes free face coverings supplied by the The Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce on Saturday, June 27, 2020 at the Kroger in Shelter Cove Towne Centre on Hilton Head Island. On Monday, Hilton Head leaders passed an ordinance that will make masks mandatory for customers in all commercial spaces beginning at 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday. The 500 masks were given away in about 30 minutes. Drew Martin [email protected]

Cherry Norris, a part-time Hilton Head resident, created the “No Mask Required HHI” website after meeting with other residents in opposition to the mask mandates. She says members of her group have met with council members.

“We were under the false impression that … if we had more voices to reason with them and to express our desire to have the freedom of choice, that we would have an influence. But it hasn’t worked,” she said.

Norris, who said she has a medical exemption that prevents her from wearing a mask, is distrustful of messaging from major health organizations.

“China made the virus. China had to furnish the masks and the medication. And now China is giving us this science. I mean, what’s wrong with this picture? It doesn’t fit,” she said, adding that case numbers and mortality rates from COVID-19 “don’t support this narrative of fear and control.”

In nearly every other municipality in the county, leaders have readily extended mask rules in recent weeks. During a unanimous vote in favor of extending Port Royal’s ordinance, council member Darryl Owens said local case numbers were “still not to the point of comfort.”

An electronic sign along May River Road in urges people entering Old Town Bluffton to wear a mask on Tuesday Sept. 8. “It’s the law,” the sign reads. Kacen Bayless [email protected]

Bluffton Town Council’s last vote, on Oct 13, was also unanimous in favor of keeping the mask rule in place.

Still, local leaders are bombarded with messaging on both sides of the issue.

“It’s a 50-50 issue right now, whoever’s vocal at the moment,” said Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka. The week before Bluffton voted to extend its mask ordinance, Sulka said she had thousands of emails from residents, mainly in support of the requirements.

Since the vote, the messages she has received have swung the other way, she said. “I see one side that’s getting more engaged. … It’s growing,” she said of mask opponents. “People are fearful on both sides.”

But Bluffton is “absolutely not hunkering down and shutting down,” Sulka said. “We want business to get back to normal.”

Drew Martin and Sam Ogozalek contributed reporting.

Profile Image of Lucas Smolcic Larson

Lucas Smolcic Larson joined The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette as a projects reporter in 2019, after graduating from Brown University. He previously contributed to investigations as an intern at The Washington Post and the Investigative Reporting Workshop in Washington D.C. Lucas hails from central Pennsylvania and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

Profile Image of Kacen Bayless

A reporter for The Island Packet covering local government and development, Kacen Bayless is a native of St. Louis, Missouri. He graduated from the University of Missouri with an emphasis in investigative reporting. In the past, he’s worked for St. Louis Magazine, the Columbia Missourian, KBIA and the Columbia Business Times. His work has garnered Missouri and South Carolina Press Association awards for investigative, enterprise, in-depth, health, growth and government reporting.
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