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Living With It

As South Carolina reopens, COVID-19 cases keep piling up

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A line of people in cars wait for about four hours to be tested for COVID-19 at Riverbank Elementary in West Columbia on June 4. Photo altered to respect patient confidentiality. Photo by Thomas Hammond

What pandemic?

If you traveled down Highway 1 from Lexington County and into downtown Columbia on the sunny afternoon of June 3, you’d be forgiven if you thought the novel coronavirus was a distant memory.

Cars and SUVs and pickup trucks ooze along the popular thoroughfare, nearly bumper to bumper, a reminder of pre-COVID-19 commuter activity. A large crowd is on hand at the U.S. #1 Metro Flea Market, with bargain hunters scouring the tables looking for treasures. The sign outside of the market states that attendees “Must Wear Mask,” but an anecdotal scan of the crowd indicates that warning is lightly heeded.

Further down the highway, the assemblage of cars in the parking lot at the Walmart in West Columbia more closely resembles Black Friday than a random day in June, and the drive-thru line at the nearby Chick-fil-A winds circuitously around the building, like a coiled snake in search of chicken nuggets.

And, over the Congaree River and into downtown Columbia along Gervais Street, there is the familiar scene of patrons popping into barber shops and restaurants and coffee shops, and leisurely dining at spots like Halls Chophouse.

Roughly a month after Gov. Henry McMaster lifted South Carolina’s stay at home order in early May, the scene would lead some to believe, at a glance, that the state has all but left the pandemic behind.

But that, clearly, is a mirage. COVID-19 is still on the move in South Carolina, with case and death numbers that should signal the need for caution as businesses reopen and citizens work to segue back into something of a normal routine.

As of June 7, there had been more than 14,200 cases of the coronavirus in South Carolina, with 546 deaths, per state Department of Health and Environmental Control data. Richland County was second in South Carolina with more than 1,740 total cases, and led the state with 69 deaths.

More eye-catching than the overall numbers since the start of the pandemic are some of the recent daily positive case tallies. Like the 447 new cases that were announced on June 5, then a record for one-day new cases in the state. But that record would last only a day, as 512 new cases were announced on June 6, followed by a still huge 390 cases on June 7.

And on June 8, a new record was set, when DHEC reported 542 new cases on a single day.

DHEC had projected its case total from May 31 to June 6 would be 1,592 cases. But the actual number came in 54 percent higher, at 2,068 cases.

And there have been other troubling signs recently. Like death counts that seem to come in bunches. For instance, SCDHEC announced 20 single-day deaths on May 27, and 17 on June 3.

To be certain, the state has increased testing markedly since the early days of the coronavirus. It hit its goal of testing 110,000 people in May. But there have also been intermittent spikes in the percentage of people who are testing positive, like on June 1 when more than 9 percent of those tested had the virus. In recent days, testing increases have fallen behind increases in new cases, making the state’s record-setting days all the more troubling.

The situation has led public health officials to renew calls for the public — many of whom have streamed back to the state’s beaches, stores and restaurants — to exercise social distancing, wash their hands often and wear cloth masks when they go out in public.

As noted in a June 3 report from The Post and Courier, DHEC’s public health director, Dr. Joan Duwve, said that the Palmetto State was seeing a “true increase” in COVID-19 cases, possibly triggered by people ignoring safety guidelines.

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Staff at the COVID-19 testing site at Riverbank Elementary in West Columbia bag samples on June 4. Photo by Thomas Hammond

She also implored people to avoid public gatherings, if possible.

“It’s really critical that we all just hunker down, stay home if we’re able,” Duwve said. “We had a very flat curve for quite a while and now as we’re starting to see increasing numbers of cases, I’m not really sure. This could look like a blip on that curve if we sort of hunker down and do what we need to do, or we could see an increase. It’s up to us.”

Just more than a month after stay at home orders have been lifted in South Carolina, it’s become clear that we’re not living in a world beyond COVID-19, but rather learning to live with it.

Local governments — like the City of Columbia — are toiling with balancing public health with an increasingly antsy citizenry’s desire to return to restaurants and parks and public spaces.

Businesses — many of which were walloped by coronavirus shutdowns in a state that has seen its normally low unemployment rate balloon to nearly 13 percent — are still trying to find a way to refill their coffers while operating in a way that makes consumers feel safe.

And coronavirus concerns sit uneasily at the edge of the recent protests in Columbia and other cities across the state, where thousands of people have taken to the streets, often shoulder to shoulder, to passionately demand racial justice following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

As South Carolina treads into an uncertain summer, COVID-19 still hovers over it all.

‘It’s not fictional. It’s real’

Democratic state Rep. Kambrell Garvin, who represents areas of North Columbia and Northeast Richland, is blunt about the novel coronavirus, an ailment that some seem to be turning a blind eye toward as they hurtle back into everyday activities.

“It’s real,” Garvin says of COVID-19. “It’s a real thing.”

In fact, it’s been all too real for the 28-year-old attorney and lawmaker: Garvin recently revealed that he tested positive for COVID-19 on May 29. He quarantined after his diagnosis, and told Free Times he was steadily recovering after suffering from a number of telltale symptoms, including a fever, chills, a dry cough, trouble sleeping and more.

The legislator says he was surprised by his diagnosis, as he has tried to limit his movements to essential business, such as going to work or the Statehouse, or out to the grocery store. Garvin’s district has been among the hardest hit areas in South Carolina in regard to COVID-19. It includes the majority-black 29223 zip code, which had recorded a state-high 333 positive cases as of June 8, per DHEC.

Garvin says he worries about the public letting its guard down in regard to the virus.

“What I have observed is a cavalier attitude from many segments of our community, both locally and statewide, from folks who feel like this COVID-19 pandemic has passed,” he says. “However, I decided to share my diagnosis because I wanted folks to realize that it is very much still prevalent and we have to obviously remain vigilant in our community. There’s just no question about it: COVID-19 can clearly cross racial, economic and political lines.

“What worries me the most, because COVID has disproportionately impacted communities of color in South Carolina, is that the shift has been to focusing almost solely to focusing on economic consequences.”

COVID-19 has been disproportionately tough on the black community in South Carolina. As of June 2, African-American citizens, despite comprising only 27 percent of the state’s population, had accounted for 43 percent of the state’s coronavirus cases and 49 percent of virus deaths.

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A crowd enjoys beer and socializes in the outdoor area at the reopened Steel Hands Brewery in Cayce on June 4. Photo by Thomas Hammond

At-large Columbia City Councilman Howard Duvall has, since the beginning of the pandemic, been one of Council’s more concerned members regarding the coronavirus, and was among those who pushed for the city to pass its own stay at home order back in March, before McMaster declared such an order statewide. (The city eventually let its order expire after the state told people to stay home.)

The second term councilman says he thinks some of the population’s relaxed attitudes regarding COVID-19 guidelines — including not adhering to social distancing and sporadic, at best, mask-wearing in public — comes from cues they are picking up from state and national leaders.

“We are no longer able to really get public support for the stay at home orders that, I think, are necessary to stop the spread until we get a vaccine and enough of our population is immune to this disease that we have herd immunity,” Duvall says.

When asked if he thinks residents would be receptive to going back to widespread quarantine should cases show a big spike as the year goes along, Duvall isn’t optimistic.

“I think the public sentiment would not support that anymore,” he says, flatly.

Third-term Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin says he has watched closely as COVID-19 cases have continued to rise in South Carolina, noting recent trends leave him “gravely concerned.”

He notes that the city continues to push testing for its own front-line employees, as well as workers at local businesses. At the same time, the city government has proceeded with its own cautious reopening measures. It is in the middle of a five-phase plan in which it is allowing citizens to once again use amenities in public parks, and the 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. city curfew, put in place two months ago at the height of quarantine measures, is set to expire June 9.

While Benjamin emphasizes that measured reopening is necessary — he says a long-term shutdown is “economically ruinous” — he also doesn’t want people to be lured into the comfort of thinking the virus has passed just because restrictions have been eased.

“It’s our job as leaders to continue to emphasize in word and deed how important it is that we are still in the heart of a pandemic,” the mayor says. “It is real. It is not fictional. It’s real.”

Protests During a Pandemic

At the same moment South Carolina begins to get signals of increased COVID-19 cases, another event has given rise to concern about the spread of the virus.

During the past week, thousands of people across the state have taken to the streets to protest police brutality against African Americans following the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. That has certainly been the case in Columbia, where days of protests were touched off on May 30 with a massive rally and march that began at the South Carolina Statehouse.

At the Columbia protests, and those in other cities, many of the activists have worn masks. (Mask wearing among police officers has seemed much spottier.) Still, the events have brought many, many people in close proximity with one another, with plenty of moments of chanting, singing, locking arms and other close-up shows of solidarity.

As reported by The Post and Courier, state epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell has noted that public health officials worry that any large event, be it a party, a protest or another gathering, could prove worrisome as it relates to COVID-19. Meanwhile, a DHEC spokesperson has noted the risk of virus spread can increase “when individuals are loudly talking, cheering or yelling — all of which may produce more particles containing the virus that also may spread further.”

Mike Schmidt, an immunologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, told The Post and Courier the protests might have led to a “perfect storm” for the spread of the virus, particularly in larger cities in the United States.

Garvin, the African American representative who tested positive for COVID-19, says he understands why so many people felt compelled to take to the streets for the protests. Still, he worries about the contagious nature of the coronavirus.

“I absolutely recognize the significance of these protests we are seeing, not just in South Carolina, not just nationally, but worldwide,” Garvin tells Free Times. “I think the world is indicating that enough is enough when it comes to police brutality in the African American community.

“With that being said, as I was quarantined and watched local coverage of the protests, while my heart was with the movement and those who participated, I couldn’t help but wonder about the risk of the spread of the virus in our community. It really gave me pause.”

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Protestors gather on the Statehouse grounds as diners enjoy a meal on the patio at Halls Chophouse on June 4. Photo by Thomas Hammond

While there certainly may be concern about the spread of COVID-19 at the protests, the stakes of what’s at hand are much more substantial than, say, a group of people rushing out to a department store after quarantine orders were lifted. These are people responding to the death of another black American in an encounter with another white police officer. They are many, and they have been spurred to take — often quite literally — to the streets in an emotional call to action after decades and decades of systemic racial oppression and police brutality.

It’s a fact not lost on Columbia’s Dr. Aditi Srivastav Bussells, a public health expert with research expertise in health disparities and health policy who has spent the last couple years extensively exploring structural racism and its impact on health. She was among those who attended the protest at the Statehouse on May 30.

She notes the moment was so significant that, for many, the opportunity to take an historic stand against police violence against black citizens outweighed the risk of COVID-19.

Srivastav Bussells says she planned to get a coronavirus test after protesting. She says other protesters should also consider getting a test.

“The availability of testing sites has increased, so one of the messages that I’ve really been trying to get out is, if you are like me and you’ve been out and been in crowds, it is now our social responsibility to get tested,” she says. “It’s really that secondary screening level of prevention where we know we engaged in a high-risk activity, we need to get tested, and hopefully keep it from spreading further.”

‘Filter out the Bulls#!t’

It’s no secret that COVID-19 crippled commerce across America.

The restaurant and hospitality industry, in particular, has been hit hard, including here in South Carolina. In March, Gov. McMaster shuttered indoor dining at bars and restaurants in hopes of slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. That prohibition was lifted on May 11, with guidelines on social distancing and occupancy.

But even as restaurants have gotten the go-ahead to start serving customers in their dining rooms again, some owners have grappled with the risk of operating in a time when there is no vaccine for COVID-19, and cases continue to roll in.

That’s the situation for Brian Nelson, who owns the well-liked Keg Cowboy restaurant and bar on Lexington’s Main Street. He tells Free Times his decision to reopen his dining room weighed on him.

“It was extremely difficult,” Nelson says. “Both of my kids work here with me. You are trying to factor in everything and you are trying to make good decisions based on the information you have — which isn’t always good —and trying to pull your info from credible sources, and trying to filter out the bulls#!t and the politics, to make sound decisions.”

Nelson says, when the governor first closed dining rooms in March, his business dropped about 65 percent overnight. Still, he and a small staff spent the next couple months cranking out to-go orders and, as he puts it, “hustling bread and cinnamon rolls and trying to stay relevant.”

When the governor allowed restaurants to restart dine-in services on May 11, Nelson initially kept going with takeout only, not wanting to rush into the risk of allowing diners back inside with the coronavirus still spreading. However, once many of the other restaurants near Keg Cowboy opened their dining rooms again, business at the Keg dropped even further, spurring Nelson to bring back indoor dining, as well. The first night of rekindled dine-in service at the restaurant was May 30.

“My hand sort of got forced on reopening the dining room, to be honest,” Nelson says. “I’m not certain we were fully ready, but I’m not certain we had any choices.”

Nelson made several changes in the run-up to reopening, including painting, refinishing a bar and doing a deep cleaning. He “got out the tape measure” and made sure tables are six to eight feet apart, and the small restaurant lost 15 seats in the process. He’s made masks optional for employees — on a recent visit by Free Times, about half the staff had one on — and servers are wearing single-use gloves when they bring food and beverages to customers. There are bottles of hand sanitizer placed throughout the restaurant.

Nelson says he is doing all he can to balance keeping customers comfortable with making the restaurant safe for staff and the patrons.

“You are trying to walk that line between doing what’s right for your business, doing what’s right for your staff, and being a responsible human,” he says. “You don’t want to be the person who helps spread the pandemic. I would be crushed if it came back that someone came in here that was sick and got 40, 50, 60 people sick in here because we weren’t following any guidelines.”

Carl Blackstone is the CEO of the Columbia Chamber. He notes that the COVID-19 has been a deep cut for many businesses. At the same time, he says he’s taken note in recent days as coronavirus cases have continued to pop up in South Carolina.

The Columbia Chamber and Lexington Chamber have created what they are calling a “Pledge to Reopen Responsibly,” which allows participating businesses to receive a poster signifying to customers the business’ adherence to COVID-19 safety guidelines, including social distancing and limiting capacity.

Blackstone says businesses can’t act like the coronavirus has gone away.

“The numbers are real,” he says. “We are seeing a phasing of businesses reopening. We are going to begin to see a lot more opening. We have to constantly remind people that this is not back to normal. We have to take safety precautions.

“We can’t afford to have another three-month quarantine.”

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