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Downtown Charleston restaurants launch free weekly COVID testing for hospitality employees

Edmund's Oast

Edmund’s Oast bar manager Jayce McConnell sanitizes a table on June 29, 2020, in Charleston. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

As the coronavirus surges across South Carolina, a pair of downtown Charleston restaurateurs are launching a COVID-19 testing program to slow the disease’s spread through the local food-and-beverage community.

Starting this week, free COVID-19 tests will be available every Wednesday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. in the Half Mile North parking lot shared by Edmund’s Oast and Butcher & Bee. Edmund’s Oast owner Scott Shor said he anticipates short wait times for the walk-up tests, offered in partnership with the Medical University of South Carolina and property developer Raven Cliff.

While the testing program isn’t restricted to hospitality workers, Shor and Butcher & Bee owner Michael Shemtov said it could provide a powerful bulwark against further industry devastation. If the pandemic remains out of control, Shor says, restaurants are likely to face severe staff shortages, reduced customer traffic and costly closures, in addition to the ruinous societal toll.

South Carolina on Sunday recorded 3,952 positive tests, with a positive rate of 29.6 percent.

“Our whole industry is at risk right now,” Shor says. “People have this false sense of security that because the vaccine is coming, everything is going to be OK: These two months are going to be hardest we’ve ever faced. If we are not proactive in managing COVID within our own walls, then we’re setting ourselves up to exacerbate disaster.”

The Gin Joint, for example, on Saturday announced it would be “closed for several days” following an employee’s positive test. It was the second such closure for the downtown Charleston bar in under six weeks.

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Many Charleston area restaurants have implemented temperature checks for employees and encouraged them to report if they’re feeling unwell. But because studies show nearly half of COVID-19 cases can be traced to infected people who haven’t yet developed symptoms, or won’t ever develop them, many public health officials believe regular testing is the best way to prevent outbreaks.

With that advice in mind, the Edmund’s Oast team late last year implemented weekly testing for its employees.

Yet Shor said they encountered various logistical hurdles that he suspected would prevent many restaurants from following suit. Most testing sites require users to register online in advance, presenting a challenge to restaurant workers who don’t have regular computer access or rigid work schedules.

The goal of the new weekly testing program is to remove those barriers.

“Some restaurants don’t want COVID associated with their restaurants,” Shor said of the optics of a testing station adjacent to the restaurant. “It needs to not be taboo to talk about COVID in the restaurant industry: If restaurateurs feel uncomfortable saying, ‘Come get a COVID test,’ we’re not doing it right.”

While participants aren’t required to sign up for the testing at 1081 Morrison Drive, they are asked to bring identification. For more information, call 843-727-1145.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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