South Carolina restaurants and bars will have to cut off alcohol sales at 11 p.m., beginning Saturday night, under an order issued Friday by Gov. Henry McMaster.
The new rule is the first reopening rollback since McMaster on April 16 began removing state restrictions intended to control the spread of the coronavirus by bringing boat landings back into commission. Since that date, COVID-19 cases across South Carolina have increased tenfold, with 21,560 cases recorded in the past two weeks.
“We are concerned about the spread, unintentionally, from the younger generations to the older generations,” McMaster said in a press conference. “It’s time for our younger adults to behave like mature adults. This is very serious. … Although our younger people might feel just fine, they might be carrying that virus, and inflict permanent damage.”
McMaster differentiated the order from municipal measures, such as mask ordinances, as enforceable by the state. “We can and will” fine violators, he vowed.
Some members of the food-and-beverage community have called for another shutdown, saying a government mandate would make it easier for them to deal with landlords and employees. But McMaster was adamant that no further restrictions are in the works.
"We are not going to go back and close the businesses: We cannot do it," he said, advising South Carolinians to wash their hands, wear masks and observe social distance.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg advocated the same course of action, but didn't dismiss the possibility of additional crackdowns. "As the governor made clear, this is just the first step on the road to further restrictions if we don't bring this virus under control, starting right now," he said.
Health officials have singled out bars as leading agents of coronavirus transmission, pointing out that a lack of social distance in confined spaces is core to their business model. Additionally, bars are typically patronized by young people who aren’t overly concerned about contracting COVID-19.
While the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has declined to reveal if any outbreaks have been linked to a bar or restaurant, health departments across the country have connected double-digit clusters of infections to drinking venues, including a sports bar in Washington and brewpub in Michigan.
Hospitals in the Charleston area report people under 40 account for a growing share of their positive tests, with more than 50 percent of those testing positive at Roper St. Francis coming from that demographic.
Under the new order, bars and restaurants can remain open after 11 p.m., but are barred from pouring beer, wine or liquor. The "Last Call" order does not apply to retail stores, including convenience stores and groceries; it takes effect Saturday at 11 p.m., by which time the vast majority of high-end dining rooms have mostly emptied out.
"We pretty much close at 10 p.m.," said Mount Pleasant Town Council member Jake Rambo, a partner in Grace & Grit. Rambo called the order "not a bad idea, really."
Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin also supports the order, but questioned why the alcohol cutoff wasn't imposed earlier in the evening. Just over a week ago, Folly Beach passed its own local rule stopping live music and entertainment past 9 p.m. in an attempt to whittle down crowds at local businesses.
"Why not 10 p.m. or 9 p.m.? Why wait until 11 p.m.? If (bar patrons are) going to get infected, they're going to get infected," he said.
According to TJ Lynch, owner of Lowlife Bar on Folly, said his business will be largely unaffected by the order because of its late start.
"The beach is different," he said. "People are here on vacation: They start drinking at 10 a.m. By the end of the day, they're sunburned and tired. They eat dinner and they’re done."
But in downtown Charleston, Keith Benjamin, owner of Uptown Social, characterized the new rule as “crippling.”
“There’s no sugar-coating it,” he said. “Our business has been modeled for 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. We obviously didn’t sign a lease for 10,000 feet on King Street in hopes of doing decent daytime business.”
Still, daytime business will become a new focus by default. Uptown Social on Thursday opened a new patio adjacent to its building, which Benjamin says will now serve as a shaded seating area for the bar’s new breakfast sandwich endeavor. In advance of opening Bodega later this year, Uptown Social plans later this month to start serving eggs and other items on kaiser rolls in the morning.
“Our model was not to serve breakfast: It’s not going to pay the rent,” he said. “But we’re really excited about the concept.”
And if breakfast patrons are thirsty, Benjamin says his bar is ready with mimosas.
South Carolina's new booze curfew comes just before the start Monday of Myrtle Beach Bike Week, an annual event that draws thousands of motorcyclists to the Grand Strand known for late-night partying at area bars.
In Myrtle Beach, at least one bar owner was completely blindsided by the order. William Couch, owner of Suck Bang Blow bar outside Murrells Inlet, was shocked to learn the state was requiring him to curtail service.
He lamented how much revenue he'll likely lose by having to pull the plug before midnight on bike rally events he's now in the midst of hosting, and noted his servers and bartenders will also miss out on tips.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense to me," Couch said. "Is the virus asleep during the day and awake at night?"
In Couch's view, the order has no merit, but Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune believes it could help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Horry County as of Friday had 5,203 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and multiple states have warned their citizens not to travel there.
Tyler Fleming, Chloe Johnson, Andy Shain and David Slade contributed to this report.