Greenville Mayor Knox White was initially skeptical about the benefit of face masks to slow the spread of COVID-19. Lots of people agreed with him.
How could something so simple, flimsy even, go to battle against a virus with no known cure and a vaccine not yet developed?
And even though the city of Greenville holds itself out as progressive, it’s still surrounded by the much more populous Greenville County, which is staunchly conservative.
Yet Greenville, South Carolina’s sixth-largest city, became the first in the state to make it mandatory for people to wear masks in grocery stores and pharmacies.
“It was a radical thing,” White said.
The ordinance was passed in mid-June. Columbia and Charleston followed within two weeks.
In the weeks before masks became mandatory, Greenville’s COVID-19 cases had skyrocketed, and business plummeted. The city’s decades-long revitalization frayed. Several major construction projects continued, but postponements and cancellations of major events began in mid-March, including the Greenville Drive minor league baseball season and the Itzak Perlman concert.
The bottom dropped out on March 31 when Gov. Henry McMaster ordered all non-essential businesses closed.
Greenville’s business owners were at risk of losing everything. Something had to be done.
In the 1970s, Main Street looked more like Empty Street, and its resurgence has been a 40-year work in progress. It began quite simply. The four-lane street became two, framed by willows, maples, a lot of shrubs and wide sidewalks .
The transformation chugged along, slowly but steadily, adding a convention center, new stores, many restaurants, offices, hotels. But what cinched downtown’s personality was the creation of Falls Park. Twenty-six acres straddling the Reedy River had been the focus of the Carolina Foothills Garden Club since the 1960s.
What came next is a story White likes to tell. Regularly, he would walk under the four-lane Camperdown Bridge to see Reedy River Falls. He couldn’t believe the falls’ beauty, masked by concrete, and was dismayed by the people who lived under the bridge, used drugs and hunted for prostitutes.
He believed that for the park to reach its potential, the bridge had to come down. White didn’t make progress until he took a powerful state senator, Verne Smith, to see the falls. Soon, the South Carolina Department of Transportation approved demolishing the bridge.
Furman University donated 6 more acres, and the park took shape. It has become a draw for residents and visitors alike and created a link to development of the West End, where a minor league ballpark was built, along with more offices, more restaurants, more stores. The length of usable Main Street doubled.
But by this April, in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, downtown’s decades of progress seemed threatened. All those renovated buildings looked a lot like Empty Street of the 1970s.
As the coronavirus spread, doctors at the five Upstate hospital systems shared information every week about what they were seeing, what treatments worked, available beds, personal protective equipment. Masks were fundamental to fighting the virus, doctors said.
“I have been a huge mask advocate from the get-go,” said Dr. Marcus Blackstone, chief clinical officer at Bon Secours St. Francis Health System.
Dr. Wendell James, chief clinical officer at Prisma Health-Upstate, said he has known White for a long time, considers him a friend. He said he worked behind the scenes to convince White about face masks.
“I fussed at him,” James said. He also implored White to shut down the bars. White didn’t have the authority to do that, but McMaster did.
April passed, then May, and many businesses were still closed. And a sizable number of people refused to wear masks. COVID cases soared, and sometimes as many as a dozen people were hospitalized in a day, Blackstone said.
Then in May, businesses started reopening. Owners needed to convince customers it was safe to shop and eat out. Greenville leaders announced the Greenville Pledge.
Business owners agreed to use best practices: ensure employees were healthy, require social distancing, increase cleaning and limit capacity. Masks for all employees. A sticker in their window would signal participation.
“The first month people were really jumping aboard,” White said.
Enthusiasm for masks wasn’t sticking easily. White’s early warning sign was his favorite restaurant, which he wouldn’t identify, saying only that it was a pizza place. At first everyone wore a mask, then over time, fewer and fewer people did.
“People got complacent,” he said
Residents began calling and emailing White saying they were afraid to go to get groceries or medications, especially elderly people.
“It touched my heart,” he said. “That’s not right. You may not have to go to a gift shop, but you’ve got to get groceries.”
The number of coronavirus cases wasn’t decreasing to a level that could be considered good, but the situation was manageable.
Then came Memorial Day.
“People were tired of being at home,” Blackstone said. “They’d been cooped up for six weeks.”
A new wave of infections hit about two weeks after the holiday.
The doctors believed people needed a push to do what was right. Blackstone appeared before City Council and encouraged them to pass an ordinance requiring mask wearing.
The council did, unanimously.
Then, they had to sell it to a dubious public.
White corralled Blackstone, James and other doctors to be the face of mask promotion. Each week, the doctors spoke at a press conference in stark terms about what they were seeing in their hospitals and clinics: the deaths, the sickness, the suffering that could be avoided.
Hospital leaders crafted a plan about what they would do if they became overrun with patients. Who would get care, who would be sent away. They had enough ICU beds and ventilators. What they didn’t have were travel nurses to staff them, Blackstone said.
Blackstone warned in one press conference that his hospital was two weeks away from a staffing shortage It did not happen, but even as case levels slowed, the patients were sicker than those who came before. And younger people began getting sick.
“Young people think they are invincible,” Blackstone said. “People are playing Russian Roulette. Times like this they find out they have an immune system problem that’s never been challenged before.”
Greenville’s cases, once highest in the state, have dropped enough to be classified by the Department of Health and Environmental Control as moderately high. In all, more than 11,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Greenville County, and 229 people have died, the most in the state. One who died was younger than 5.
About three weeks after the city of Greenville mandated masks, the county of Greenville began to see a steep downward trend in the number of new COVID cases reported each day, according to state health department data.
The months have taken a toll on health care workers, Blackstone said.
Some have left the profession entirely.
“Everybody has a breaking point,” he said.
He wishes people who refuse to wear masks could come into the hospital and see the patients. Some didn’t make it out of the emergency room.
James is concerned about what’s ahead when flu season arrives. Prisma will hold drive-thru flu shot clinics, he said.
Greenville, meanwhile, fared as well as it could have during the limitations on restaurants and other businesses. Greenville already had a robust outdoor dining scene, White said. The city has worked hard to get apartments and condominiums built downtown, which kept the streets from being empty.
“At least we had a heartbeat,” he said.
They installed cleansing stations throughout the city and embarked on a public relations campaign.
Two months after the face mask ordinance was passed, Greenville is not giving up on masks. Last Wednesday, the city handed out 50,000 free masks to businesses whose owners signed the Greenville Pledge. In all, the city has given out 170,000 masks.
Firefighters and community development staffers visited business found to be sidestepping the mask ordinance. No one was fined, but city leaders felt the message was clear: Someone was watching.
Recently, Charleston City Council put some heft behind its own ordinance by setting fines for people seen in public without masks.
White said he doesn’t believe Greenville needs to go that far. Its ordinance focuses on indoor mask wearing, and so far business owners have been amenable.
“If we see a pattern of repeat offenders, we may fine,” he said. “Just haven’t seen it.”
Lyn Riddle covers Greenville for The State. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado and an MFA from Converse College. She has worked for The Greenville News as an editor and reporter and for The Union Democrat as the editor. She is the author of four books of true crime.