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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

SC Reopening Task Force Member: 'I Wish We Would Have Had A Mask Mandate'

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Chris Miller
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WFAE

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has said he will not issue a statewide face mask mandate, although he's said cities and towns can impose local restrictions. But one member of the governor's reopening task force now says that in hindsight, he wishes the state had issued a mask mandate back when businesses were reopening in May.

The man is restaurant owner Bobby Williams of Columbia. He spoke with WFAE's Nick de la Canal.

Nick de la Canal: You own more than a dozen restaurants, mostly around Columbia. Local leaders there instituted a mask requirement almost two months after restaurants reopened. What was your experience with customers before Columbia instituted that mask mandate? Like, what were the interactions like between customers and staff?

Bobby Williams: Well, in the beginning, there was a good many of customers that really at that time really thought this was a hoax, and they could not believe that we were requiring our front-of-the-house staff to wear masks. And a good many appreciated it, but a lot thought it was a hoax. They would get mad. They wouldn't eat with us. We would ask them to wear a mask, and they would leave. And it really was not quite fair to my employees, especially to the younger ones, to have a confrontation with the customer about a mask. So we made sure the managers were always up front to handle the situation.

De la Canal: So, you're not only a restaurant owner but also a member of the South Carolina governor's reopening task force.

Williams: I am, I am.

De la Canal:  Back in May, you pushed for restaurants to reopen. What was your thinking then about the role that face masks should play in reopening?

Williams: We really didn't talk about it that much in the beginning. Only later, when we were getting different information from the CDC, did we think it was a good idea. And it has worked. The face masks do work, so it hadn't been a problem.

De la Canal:  So it was mostly guidance from the CDC that changed some of that thinking?

Williams: Absolutely. Well, the South Carolina -- Accelerate South Carolina went exactly by the CDC guidelines. So, it was really no problem. The city (Columbia) finally mandated a mask. Greenville did, also. Charleston did, also. I think Charleston was probably first. Columbia was second or third. But it really helped when the city did that, so more and more people got on board.

I wish we would have done it a little bit sooner. I think would have been little bit better place. North Carolina did it, and I went on vacation in North Carolina and everywhere I went, everyone wore a mask and I thought it was great.

De la Canal:  Bobby Williams, you're also chairman of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. What are you hearing from other restaurant owners in the state on this topic, and do they agree with you?

Williams: (Laughter) I don't know if they agree with me. There's some out there that still think this is a hoax. I think right now, we have got to protect our employees and protect the customers. So yes, I do believe they agree with face masks right now. You know, the beach -- our tourism is tremendous in South Carolina -- and the beach is on board. Charleston is the food mecca of South Carolina. The restauranteurs are all on board. So I think so. I think everybody's on board with it.

De la Canal:  Have you spoke at all with Gov. Henry McMaster about face masks and about your concerns?

Williams: I have not. I have not. I think it's water over the dam now ...

De la Canal:  Well, is there anything that you'd want to say to him?

Williams: Well, I mean he's done a pretty good job. He's pro-business. He wanted to get us open as fast as possible. He's done a very good job. I wish we would have had a mask mandate, but it's water over the dam now, and hindsight's 20/20. So, we were going with the latest information that we had, and I understand where he was coming from. You just can't enforce it. You don't have the law enforcement agencies to do that.

De la Canal:  And well, the governor has said that he doesn't have plans to issue a mandatory mask requirement. What is the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association advising their members to do in light of that?

Williams: Follow CDC guidelines. We started the Palmetto Priority, which we made a commitment to our customers to make them feel more comfortable coming in the restaurants -- that we will be wearing masks and we'll be doing sanitizing, social distancing. So we're doing our part to make the customers feel comfortable.

De la Canal:  Bobby Williams, he's the owner of Lizard's Thicket restaurants and president of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. Thanks so much.

Williams: OK, thank you.

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