COLUMBIA — South Carolina restaurants can return to normal seating immediately under a new order issued Friday by Gov. Henry McMaster that ends one of the last coronavirus restrictions in the state.
Restaurants were restricted to 50 percent interior seating after being allowed only to offer takeout and outdoor dining for months amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some restrictions remain. Patrons and staff must wear masks, and restaurants have to stop alcohol sales at 11 p.m., a move to curb late-night socializing by younger customers, especially those in college towns.
But customers now can gather around bars and sit at tables with large groups now that occupancy limitations are no longer in effect.
Still, McMaster cautioned restaurateurs to maintain safety measures including spacing tables six feet apart, limiting seating to eight diners and spacing groups of waiting patrons by six feet.
“South Carolina is open for business” the governor said in a statement. “Our state’s approach has been a measured, deliberate, and targeted one — aimed at keeping our economy open and our people safe.”
McMaster announced his intention to lift the restaurant limits on Thursday. He adopted the new rules in his latest renewal of 15-day emergency orders issued since March when the coronavirus outbreak began. South Carolina has been one of the hardest hits states with more than 144,000 people testing positive for COVID-19 and more than 3,200 dying.
South Carolina joins more than 20 states in allowing restaurants to operate at 100 percent capacity even though a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found people who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have eaten at a restaurant than those who tested negative.
With restaurants able to reopen all seating, that leaves, large gatherings — like sporting events, trade conferences and festivals — as the last main COVID-19 restriction in South Carolina.
Organizers must get clearance from the S.C. Department of Commerce to hold mass gatherings of more than 250 people. More than 2,000 events have received the state's blessing — including major college football teams, NASCAR and shows, like the Carolina Opry and Medieval Times in Myrtle Beach.