Columbia hasn’t yet reached peak eclipse mania, but we’re getting there.
Preparations are beginning to accelerate in advance of this summer’s total solar eclipse, which will happen at 2:41 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 21. The Columbia area is being billed as the “total eclipse capital of the East Coast,” as the Midlands is directly in the “path of totality” for the solar event.
Columbia will experience the longest period of total eclipse on the Eastern seaboard, as there will be 2 minutes, 36 seconds of darkness in the middle of the afternoon. It will be the first transcontinental total solar eclipse in 99 years.
Aside from the historic significance and aesthetic beauty of the eclipse (Dan McGlaun, an enthusiast who has witnessed 12 total eclipses across the globe, calls it a “jaw-dropping, knee-buckling, emotionally overloading, completely overwhelming spectacle”) the event is also expected to be a boon for tourism in South Carolina, with NASA predicting more than one million visitors statewide.
Columbia City Councilman at-large Howard Duvall says he expects the Midlands will be particularly besieged with visitors from across the U.S. and overseas.
“Columbia is going to be a location, a city, that people will think about when they say, ‘We want to get close to the center line of totality,’” Duvall tells Free Times. “I think we may have 400,000 people come into the Columbia area. It will be like having [five] Clemson-Carolina football games all on the same day.”
Duvall has been at the front of the city’s efforts in prepping for the eclipse. The city and representatives from a number of agencies — including the State Museum, Experience Columbia (the visitors bureau), One Columbia for Arts and History, Capital City Lake Murray Country and the Columbia Fireflies — have formed a steering committee that is shaping an entire weekend of events surrounding the eclipse.
Duvall says there is a meeting planned in the next few weeks in which law enforcement agencies from the region will meet to make sure everyone is on the same page about events surrounding the coming eclipse.
The city has invested $110,000 in hospitality tax dollars in the eclipse weekend efforts, which helped pay for a website (totaleclipsecolumbiasc.com) and other marketing efforts, plus 200,000 pairs of special protective glasses which will be necessary to view the partial eclipse that takes place just before the total eclipse.
Duvall says it is his understanding “most of the major hotels in downtown Columbia” are booked solid on Sunday, August 20, the night before the eclipse. While she didn’t yet have hard numbers on total bookings, South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association spokeswoman Katie Montgomery says hoteliers are expecting a one-of-a-kind demand on rooms.
“Hotels are already getting pretty booked, and that’s really exciting,” Montgomery says. “At last check, they were starting to fill up like crazy. … We are in a prime spot. … People are coming in from all over the world to Columbia, and the Midlands in general, just for this.”
As the eclipse draws near, numerous entities are beginning to pitch various eclipse viewing events and festivities. For example, the State Fairgrounds recently announced it will host an eclipse tailgate party from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 21, with cars, buses and RVs expected.
The Fireflies — perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the carnivalesque milieu of minor league baseball — were one of the first entities to seize on a tie-in with the eclipse. The team will play the Rome Braves in a “Total Eclipse of the Park” game at 1 p.m. on Aug. 21 at Spirit Communications Park. The Fireflies will hand out free protective glasses at the gate and the game will stop during the eclipse.
Fireflies President John Katz tells Free Times the team wanted to embrace the historic nature of the eclipse as soon as it learned about it.
“There hasn’t been an eclipse that has traversed the continental U.S. in 99 years,” Katz says. “I think it’s pretty safe to say many of us are never going to see it happen again. … To be able to bring a bunch of people together, surrounded by a baseball game, and do some fun eclipse-related stuff during the game is icing on the cake.”
The State Museum is the education headquarters for the eclipse. It is having a ticketed Eclipse Day event on Aug. 21, with an appearance by Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke and access all day to various exhibits and shows inside the museum, plus a viewing area for the eclipse. Museum spokesman Jared Glover says 1,400 tickets have already been sold for the Eclipse Day event.
With hundreds of thousands of people possibly descending upon the Midlands for the eclipse, it will be important for area residents to realize there will likely be a significant uptick in traffic in the days surrounding the event. Glover says he thinks the word is getting out to the citizenry.
“I think that the closer we get to the day — especially after the July 4 holiday — there will be a lot more attention placed on it,” Glover says. “But, every time I go out and do some presentations on the museum, I sort of end with our plans on the eclipse. Recently I’ve noticed that more and more people in these groups do know about it.”