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Columbia bar draws large crowd — and criticism — just days after restrictions removed

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Pavlov's bar in Columbia's Five Points drew hundreds of patrons to its reopening Monday, drawing criticism from state and city leaders. 

A large crowd gathered at a popular Columbia college bar just days after Gov. Henry McMaster removed restrictions on restaurants, drawing criticism from city and state leaders.

University of South Carolina student media outlet SGTV News 4 posted videos of crowds gathered closely together outside and inside the Five Points bar Pavlov’s on Monday night, the bar’s first night open after months of being closed during the governor’s previous mandates that restricted occupancy and mandated distance between tables.

McMaster removed mandates that required a 50 percent occupancy limit and distance between tables on Friday, though he still recommended restaurants allow for social distancing. 

“There was nothing illegal going on, we were enforcing everything,” Pavlov’s owner Jon Sears said. “At a certain time there’s gotta be some personal responsibility here. ... I have twice the staff that I normally would to enforce the now suggestions and not requirements.”

Video showed Columbia police arriving at the bar, but they didn't take any action, said Columbia Police Department spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons. In a statement, she said that police responded to the bar shortly before 11 p.m. 

"While no police action was taken, that oversight will not repeat itself. Officers will also remind and educate management about the existing COVID-19 safety requirements which includes reducing large gatherings," the statement read.

The scene drew quick ire from many on social media and political leaders.  

“Absolutely ridiculous display of irresponsible and inconsiderate behavior that we simply shouldn’t see right now," said Brian Symmes, a spokesman for McMaster. "What we saw last night in Five Points is completely inconsistent with advice and recommendations coming from the governor and public health officials."

The governor's order require patrons and staff wear masks, and halts restaurant alcohol sales at 11 p.m., which bar owners have frequently complained about.

Pavlov's crowd in the wake of McMaster relaxing the restrictions means that the city needs to continue emphasizing education around best public health practices, said Columbia City Council member Will Brennan, who represents the Five Points district.

“It took us a long time to wrangle in his original order at 50 percent occupancy," he said. "Now the sights have been changed for us, and now we have to react to it obviously."

Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook told City Council on Tuesday that incidents of overcrowding in Five Points have not been rampant this fall.

"With what we saw at Pavlov's, that is an outlier, although a bad one," the chief said. "That was something that we have got to collectively, us and USC PD, we've got to figure out how to better navigate that with the changes in (the governor's orders). It is a difficult situation to find ourselves in, with their being some ambiguity with enforcement of the orders and how we go about enforcing the orders." 

Holbrook noted that police presence is typically heaviest in Five Points on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights when college is in-session.

"We definitely didn't get the memo on Pavlov's last night," he said. "For a Monday it caught us a little bit by surprise. I can't deny that."

Brennan’s college district has been a frequent target since its bars began to reopen and students returned. Many point their fingers at irresponsible college students for worsening the spread of COVID-19 in Columbia. Nearly 2,500 USC students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since Aug. 1, though cases have slowed in recent weeks.

Columbia council member Howard Duvall hammered the students’ actions. He wondered if the crowd fit within the bar’s capacity limits and, if it did, that the city would need to find a way to handle a situation like that.

“It’s shocking that the students are completely disregarding the public health of the community they’re living in,” Duvall said.

During a presentation to the council on Tuesday, USC President Bob Caslen said he wasn't surprised at what happened at Pavlov's after the limits on capacity were lifted.

"These are students and that's the natural reaction you would expect," Caslen said. "I think that is something we have to address. The ordinances become so tremendously important in modifying student behavior because they set the conditions of what's acceptable and what's not."

Duvall said he was concerned with USC containing the virus. He noted USC conducted 1,632 tests on a campus with 35,000 students over a recent three-day period.

"These students are going down to Pavlov's and other places, and I'm sure they are spreading the virus left and right," Duvall said.

Caslen said he thinks there is some testing fatigue among the student body.

"How do you motivate people to get tested and that sort of thing?" Caslen said. "We are in the process of doing that. We have some incentives, we have some competitions and we are going to put T-shirts out, all that sort of thing."

Caslen said there will be a mass testing event for students before they go home for Thanksgiving break when the in-person classes will end and will require mandatory testing before students return for the spring semester.

Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who has been the most prominent critic of bars and bar-goer behavior in Five Points, said the Pavlov’s video showed exactly the kind of situation he had been worried about.

“This is what we call a super-spreader event,” Harpootlian said.

It is inevitable, Harpootlian said, that healthy young people who went to Pavlov’s went home with COVID-19.

DHEC should not have stood by or deferred to local authorities in such a circumstance, he said. The agency had the authority to shut Pavlov’s down and should have done so, the senator said.

USC needs to be more assertive on off-campus events, Harpootlian said. It might be time for the university to expel students who are being so reckless, he said.

If students go to places such as Pavlov’s en masse and are infected, that will overwhelm whatever safeguards are in place on campus.

“Carolina is AWOL on this effort,” Harpootlian said.

Businesses need to make sure they are still keep their customers safe as they take advantage of relaxed rules on coronavirus, Columbia Chamber CEO Carl Blackstone said.

They also need to keep in mind the optics of such a crowded space in the age of social media and the possible blowback.

“Business owners should be cognizant of the visual impact of a picture like that,” Blackstone said.

Sears said he was excited that many customers were returning to his bar after its lengthy shutdown and he questioned why he should be “persecuted” for it. He acknowledged optics issues — he previously dealt with them when Jake's reopened with lengthy lines in May — and he further questioned where the outcry was for crowd behavior at USC's home football game on Sept. 26.

He emphasized they were following the law and trying to manage the behavior as best they could. The bar was under its capacity limit indoors and said that their policy is to kick out patrons who repeatedly don’t follow mask rules or other safety recommendations, he says.

He was concerned about crowd sizes as well, but Sears said he has businesses — he owns many bars in Columbia, including Five Point’s Jake’s and Main Street’s Hendrix — to keep open and employees to keep at work.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Sears said. “Of course I’m concerned about the crowds and we don’t want to spread COVID and hurt anyone's health, but I’m also excited to reopen. If I can’t open then I’ll go out of business. We waited (responsibly) and didn’t want to roll the dice and do what some of those other bars did.”

Chris Trainor and Mike Fitts contributed to this report.

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