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McMaster plans to relax restrictions on SC restaurants, lifting 50% occupancy limit

Spaced tables

Only a few spaces tables remain inside at Butcher & Bee on Aug. 19, 2020, in Charleston as the restaurant opened for indoor seating. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

South Carolina restaurants will no longer be legally obliged to conform to social distancing restrictions designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Henry McMaster announced Thursday.

Among the dining protocols that will be made optional by McMaster’s modification of his July 29 executive order are capacity limits and table spacing.

A provision prohibiting guests from congregating at bars will remain in place, along with a rule requiring employees to wear face coverings.

An 11 p.m. restaurant alcohol sales cutoff, covered by a separate executive order, also still stands.

“We try to be focused and use the limitations that will produce the desired result and the fewest unintended consequences,” McMaster said. “A lot of other states took a different approach and they’re not recovering as we did.”

Although most restaurants are now coping with massive revenue shortfalls, their owners aren't necessarily in favor of doing away with capacity restrictions. John Keener, past president of the Lowcountry Hospitality Association and owner of Charleston Crab House, said it's "the nightclub people" who've chafed at guest caps.

"A lot of employees and customers really liked it, although a lot of them didn't," he said, adding that it's harder for a restaurant to defend social distancing practices without the state's backing. "I don't know which side of the fence I'm on; I'm not a scientist. But personally, I think it's worked."

Keener added that allowing restaurants to return to 100-percent capacity has only theoretical meaning for most restaurateurs because they don't have enough employees to staff a full dining room. "They would not be able to accommodate guests at the moment," he says.    

Restaurants across the state in May were allowed to reopen for on-premise dining without restriction, although McMaster at the time advised owners to consider following guidelines issued by the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association. In July, with COVID-19 cases and deaths climbing, he made all previously recommended guidelines mandatory.

“We’re getting advice and insight from the business community and the health officials and everyone involved,” McMaster said Thursday of the planned rollback. “We’ll take the steps carefully that are measured to produce the correct result, but we don’t want to impose (excessive) limitations.”

Aaron Hoskins, who with Sarah Simmons owns restaurants in Columbia, expressed skepticism that public health officials would endorse McMaster's plan.

"It just blows my mind," he said. "I can’t believe they’re putting people’s health at risk for restaurants. It’s not worth it. I’m literally kind of in shock." 

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The Centers for Disease Control rates restaurant and bar settings with their "seating capacity not reduced and tables not spaced at least 6 feet apart" as presenting the highest risk for COVID-19 spread in the dining sphere. The CDC last month released a study of people's activities in the two weeks prior to the onset of coronavirus symptoms, showing they were twice as likely to have eaten at a restaurant as those who tested negative.

Hoskins and Simmons have stuck to a takeout-only program since March.

"We have no desire to resume indoor dining any time soon, but I'm thinking about all the people who have to work in these restaurants and don’t have a choice," he said.

"It’s not only irresponsible, but disrespectful of people who make their living in food-and-beverage," Hoskins continued. "I would rather close our restaurants than have one of our employees get sick or die, or go home and get a parent or grandparent sick." 

The rule capping indoor dining room occupancy at 50 percent of the number permitted by the fire marshal was initially unpopular with some South Carolina restaurateurs, who said they couldn’t earn back the money they lost when on-premise dining was prohibited if they could only seat half of their tables.

"We're a high-volume business, so to take down volume in any way really hurts us," Keith Benjamin, owner of Uptown Social on upper King Street, said. "We look forward to any restrictions being lifted."

While Benjamin would prefer to see the bar service curfew eighty-sixed, he said of McMaster's announcement, "Anything helps at this point. It's been a brutal year."  

Across the country, 22 states now allow restaurants to operate at 100 percent capacity, although some counties and cities within those states impose stricter regulations. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this week announced a return to full capacity.

The City of Charleston in July adopted a measure requiring restaurants and bars to keep their occupancy at 50 percent of the permitted level or one person per 36 square feet, whichever was less, but that rule was superseded by the executive order. Consequently, "when the governor issues the new order, it will take effect here in the city, unless the order indicates otherwise," city attorney Susan Herdina said.

McMaster did not specify when he would issue his revised order, but said South Carolinians should expect it "soon."

Jamie Lovegrove contributed to this story.

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

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