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Hicks column: Why the Register of Deeds office closing should worry everyone

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Most Charleston County residents never set foot in the Register of Deeds office, so they probably weren’t concerned it was closed for two days this week.

But they should be. What happened there shows you can never be too cautious with this coronavirus.

On Tuesday afternoon, Register of Deeds Michael Miller got word that he had tested positive for COVID-19. He’d woke up with a fever and aching body the previous Thursday, and felt bad enough that he stayed home. His doctor scheduled a virus test.

Now, Miller has taken the pandemic seriously all along. He and his staff have worn masks for months, they social distance as much as possible and keep a liberal supply of hand sanitizer in the office.

They really have no other choice. The Register of Deeds office, which records every real estate transaction, new mortgage and lien in the county, isn’t set up for online service — and it’s quite busy. Last month, the office processed 8,200 documents.

That’s a lot of traffic, mostly lawyers doing work for title companies.

The Register of Deeds office has been playing catch-up since county offices were closed during the spring lockdown, which came on the heels of an interminable hurricane evacuation in the fall. Miller knows it’s frustrating for the people who use the office, and the office has muscled through that backlog as best they could while dealing with the consequences of the coronavirus.

But his primary concern has been the staff, and a nagging fear he’d infected them all.

Last week, Miller met with his leadership team three times between Monday and Wednesday. All those managers interacted with the rest of the staff after each conference.

Going through that anecdotal contract tracing with the county’s human resources department Tuesday afternoon, they made the smart call to shut down the office, at least long enough for a cleaning crew to disinfect the place, and for the managers to get tested.

Luckily, the managers all tested negative on Thursday, which means the Register of Deeds office reopens today.

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The only other county office that’s shut down over the virus so far is Revenue Collections, which handles business licenses and collects hospitality and accommodations fees. Revenue had an exposure on a Thursday in June and shut down that Friday. The office was cleaned over the weekend, then reopened the following Monday.

This has been a little more problematic, especially in a community that, even in a pandemic, does a lot of real estate business.

“This is a high-volume office, but I have to protect my staff,” Miller says.

The fact that Miller’s top lieutenants didn’t catch the virus is a testament to the office’s safety measures. But this is the part that should worry everyone: Miller has no idea how he got the virus.

He’s been avoiding social contact, and has worn a mask when he stops by his private business, a West Ashley barbershop. Maybe he’s forgotten to put on his mask once or twice before dashing into a store over the past few months, but for the most part, he’s been a model of prudence in the pandemic.

“I wish I could say I acted cavalier and that’s how I got it,” Miller says, “but I’ve been trying to protect my staff and my family, and I still contracted it. This is almost like it’s not a ‘what if’ but ‘when.’ ”

If someone who’s taken this many precautions can catch the virus, imagine how easily careless people are transmitting it. Which may explain why Charleston is one of the country’s coronavirus hot spots right now.

The real estate community can get back to business as usual today, but Miller won’t be at the office. His quarantine will stretch through most of next week, but his prognosis is good.

He has none of the preexisting conditions that exacerbate the illness. He’s fit and relatively young. And he’s feeling better, especially since his children tested negative.

Many people won’t be so lucky, and that’s why everyone should be concerned about what happened to the register of deeds. If someone as careful as Miller can come down with the virus, anyone can.

Reach Brian Hicks at

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