TSA: South Carolina police not exempt from airport mask rule
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina county police department has argued in internal emails that its officers who have worked maskless for months at the Myrtle Beach International Airport are exempt from the federal mask mandate, but the Transportation Security Administration says that’s not the case.
The Horry County Police Department claimed it didn’t have to follow the rule because masks could pose a “health risk” to officers and prevent them from properly doing their jobs, according to emails obtained by The Sun News through the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act.
David McMahon, TSA’s federal security director for South Carolina, informed the department in an email exchange that it could have an out from the mandate if it formally asked for one. But TSA spokesperson Mark Howell told the newspaper that the police didn’t follow through on the request, so an exemption was never granted.
The federal mask rule for travel, which could lead to thousands of dollars in fines, has been in effect since February 2021. Horry County police have been at the airport since last July, and The Sun News asked three times over those months why officers weren’t following the mandate. The department declined to answer detailed questions but said it was complying, despite officers’ actions seeming to show the opposite.
McMahon said the Myrtle Beach airport was the only one that he or anyone he spoke with at TSA knew of that had issues with the rule. He even sent over special microfiber masks that would be more comfortable for the officers and prevent glasses from fogging up.
Soon after his department was offered the option to request an exemption, Chief Joseph Hill said in an email to a lieutenant that he expected officers to wear masks at the airport. But there was a caveat. He said he believed they were “following the spirit of the mandate” if masks were worn in most areas but not when sitting or standing at a police podium.
“If a passenger approaches please have them mask up,” Hill wrote on Aug. 21. “That’s a very visible post, so this may continue to bite us if we are not careful.”
Without an official exemption at the airport — something no other U.S. police agency had apparently received — the officers continued to ignore the mandate. Complaints reviewed by the newspaper show that visitors expressed confusion and concern over the lack of masks, but the chief told a lieutenant in an Aug. 7 email, “Based on my monitoring of social media, no one will care, no one that matters.”