This week, Columbia City Council had to reckon — like everybody else — with how to react to events trying to come back as the COVID-19 pandemic shows signs of waning.
The body was tasked with approving or disapproving alcohol permits for six proposed events slated for April and May on spaces regulated by the city.
These included: Columbia Museum of Art events on Boyd Plaza, including outdoor film screenings; a Live on Lincoln Fundraiser for the Arts and the return of the indie craft fair Crafty Feast (both a part of the announced return of the Artista Vista art crawl); the Derby by Design event from the Columbia Design League; and the ever-popular Gervais Street Bridge Dinner.
All were ultimately approved. But two council members, Ed McDowell and Sam Davis, voted no for every one of the events. Howard Duvall joined them in voting against approval for the Gervais Street Bridge Dinner, which was granted its permit by the barest of margins, four to three.
It’s a crystallizing example that while many of Columbia’s familiar spring events are ready to give 2021 a try, not everyone believes that they should.
“The rationale for me is quite simple,” McDowell told Free Times when asked about his no votes. “The rationale sort of centers around the whole notion of any one of those events can become super spreaders. I think you know, the numbers are low. And of course, the positivity rate is low. But any one of the events can become a super spreader. We can't be real hasty in our decisions to have those kinds of events.”
He was clear that he supports each of the events’ continued success, and affirmed that his concerns have nothing to do with any problems that are specific to any of the plans presented to Council. He simply doesn’t think it’s time for these kinds of gatherings to come back.
“I mean, gee wiz, folk are still getting vaccinated, folk are still being tested, folk are still up against a wall to find places where they can be vaccinated,” he explained. “For an example, you've got the (Gervais Street Bridge Dinner), which will have about a thousand folk. ... I can't wrap my head around the whole notion that we got a thousand folk on the bridge, and the possibility of a spreader event taking place.”
Reached after the council vote, Dr. Anthony Alberg, the epidemiology and biostatistics chair at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, told Free Times that while COVID-19 case numbers are down and vaccines continue to be administered, the situation remains much the same when it comes to gatherings and events.
“In the fall ... (we had) what I would call the second wave that had long been predicted,” he said. “When you look at we are where we are now in terms of cases per day, and deaths, and you just ignore what happened in between, there's almost no difference in terms of that there's a lot of transmission going on in the community and that we're still amidst a pandemic.
“The deaths per day are going down, so that's the good news,” he added. “The bad news is that they're still at too high level to be considered non pandemic conditions.”
For Alberg, that means it’s still time to be cautious.
Outdoor events are much better than indoor ones when it comes to potential transmission, he said.
But the difficulty in maintaining social distancing at lines for restrooms and concessions concerns him at spring events, just as it did in the fall, as does getting people in and out of event spaces without bottlenecks that lead to close quarters. And he continues to worry about excessive alcohol consumption at events, which can lead to less responsible behaviors.
And like McDowell, Alberg worried that entertaining 1,000 people at the Gervais Street Bridge can’t be done safely.
“A thousand people is just too much,” he posited. “Part of what we know can prevent transmission is avoiding large congregate settings, and 1,000 is just too large, for my opinion.
“There's just all these red flags that go up in my mind that are great concerns.”
Neil Boone, a contractor handling communications for Carolina Together, the group that purchased the rights to the dinner and is putting it on this year, said they feel their protocols, which include temperature checks and selling tickets by the table and not individual seats, will be enough to keep from becoming a spreader event.
“Our board just feels that we've got to eventually get back into events, and we just can't keep holding them off,” he responded. “Yes, 1,000 people is a lot, but it's going to be at dinner so people are going to be sitting down with people that they've already been with and in contact with. It's not a lot of people moving around. Everybody's going to be seated. The only time people are going to be getting up is to go to the restroom or to go get a beverage.”
As to getting people on and off the bridge, Boone said he trusts their guests to respect their protocols.
“People are gonna do what people want to do,” he said. “But, you know, when you're a guest in someone's home, you're going to follow their rules, you're not going to, you know, you're going to be respectful of that. So, all of the people that are purchasing tickets, you know, that's one thing that we're going to be asking is that they follow the protocols that we are asking them to do.”