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The New World

Columbia and the Midlands grapple with changes during COVID-19 outbreak

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A sign on the door announces the temporary closure of the Drip coffee shop on Main Street / Photo by Thomas Hammond

It’s not easy to get an entire city to change the way it goes about its daily life.

But, during the once-in-a-lifetime coronavirus pandemic, that is just what has happened in Columbia, as City Council, police and other officials have stretched to keep essential services running across the city, while at the same time making efforts to help prop up a business community that has already been wounded amid fears of the dangerous COVID-19 virus.

In Columbia — South Carolina’s capital and its second largest city by population — officials have quickly reshaped many of norms that have long been routine.

“We are trying to make sure there is a continuity of operations in government, at least for the near-term foreseeable future,” says Steve Benjamin, the city’s third-term mayor. “Which could wind up being half a year. You just don’t know. We are just making sure we are being very judicious in how we are handling concerns.

“But, to be sure, we are in uncharted territory as a country.”

The city is restricting access to all of its public buildings, and is not taking any payments in person. All of the buildings, playgrounds and greenspaces across Columbia’s vast parks system are closed. The city has suspended all water and sewer service cutoffs until further notice.

All of the events that typically happen on Columbia’s streets — like the popular Soda City Market — have been called off for the time being. Even City Council meetings — long a hallmark of civic life in the Capital City — have changed drastically, as the Council is gathering via teleconference until further notice.

The way the city goes about public safety also has seen a shift, with the police halting in-person responses to non-emergency calls, while still responding live to any urgent or violent incidents. With schools closed across the state on the order of Gov. Henry McMaster, the department’s school resource officers have been shifted into helping with day-to-day police operations.

And then there’s the curfew.

On March 17, spurred by Benjamin and at-large Councilman Howard Duvall, City Council approved a nightly 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in the Capital City, one that could last for up to 60 days without an extension. It was an extra measure to encourage social distancing, one that — when combined with an edict from McMaster to shutter all dine-in services at bars and restaurants statewide — serves to turn the Capital City’s streets into a veritable ghost town in the late-night hours.

All of it, along with temporary closures and adjustments in the private sector, have, almost instantly, changed the aesthetic of life in Columbia.

Singling out the curfew, Benjamin admits it was a tough call for Council to make. But he also stresses the need for public buy-in on the idea of social distancing if the virus is to be contained.

“This was a very difficult decision and not a measure we take lightly,” the mayor says. “To get through this current public health crisis and to save lives, it will have to be a collective effort between all of us.”

The mayor concedes it hasn’t been easy reimagining how the Capital City works in the roughly two weeks since the coronavirus spread became a reality for South Carolina. Still, he’s pushed through a host of measures, including a $6 million economic sustainability package that, among other things, pumps money into the hands of businesses and nonprofits. Meanwhile, across the river in Lexington, officials have also adopted some measures to ease burdens on business.

Benjamin says the steps Columbia has taken have been done with the unpredictable nature of the pandemic in mind. Public perception of how long social distancing and other quarantine methods might last seem, at times, to shift by the hour.

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Five Points on the morning of March 20 / Photo by Thomas Hammond

Tip of the Spear

Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook’s department has been near the front of the city’s altered way of doing business, with officers enforcing curfew and continuing to respond to urgent calls at a time when there is great uncertainty among the citizenry.

The veteran chief stresses that the department, which has nearly 400 officers, remains vigilant during the crisis, but is also taking measures — like closing the lobbies at police headquarters and district command centers to the public — to keep cops healthy and available.

“We are trying to keep our workforce safe, so that we can provide the service we do every day,” Holbrook tells Free Times. “But, we have the same stressors that everybody else has. We go to the same grocery stores where shelves are empty, and we have situations with childcare and all of that. So, you have those stressors, plus the burden that is put to us with policing in these circumstances. These are difficult times.”

The chief was quick to point out that, though there are temporary guidelines with how the department conducts day-to-day business, officers will respond with haste when there are emergencies or violent situations.

“First and foremost, if there’s an emergency in progress, if you call, we’re coming,” Holbrook says. “One-hundred percent. We are there, we are fully staffed, we’re coming. The police are out there, visible and ready to respond.”

As for the curfew, the chief has pledged that officers will dole out a healthy number of warnings to violators, and will only take people into custody as a “very, very last resort.”

There can be concerns with special curfews that they could disproportionately impact certain communities. For instance, in 2017, Austin, Texas, ended its youth curfew over concerns that it was targeting racial minorities. The Guardian reports that black youths received 17 percent of the citations for nighttime violations of curfew in that Texas city, despite making up only 8 percent of the population.

Holbrook insists that Columbia police would be fair in the enforcement of the temporary curfew in the Capital City.

“To me, where it garners the greatest interest is in business and entertainment areas, where you would [normally] see groups of people congregating,” the chief notes. “We will enforce in keeping with our core values and professionalism as we always do. We are going to provide fair, unbiased policing, across the board. We are a diverse workforce that looks like our city. We are a diverse city. We will apply the law equally and use common sense.”

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Shelves emptied of toilet paper and paper towels at the Food Lion in Five Points / Photo by Thomas Hammond

‘There’s No Cavalry Coming’

Meanwhile, concerns at the city level stretch beyond just the public safety sphere. As citizens increasingly hunker down to ride out the virus, businesses are already feeling the pinch.

Longtime City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann has been particularly concerned with the impact that the COVID-19 situation is having on the city’s businesses, whether it’s bars and restaurants or other parts of the service sector.

“People are worried about where the future lies,” the District 4 councilman tells Free Times, “The hospitality industry is getting hit hard. But we’ve got salons and lots of other small businesses that are getting hit. I’m hopeful that, soon, people will be able to go out and try to be smart, but also try to patronize these [businesses] to try to keep them alive.”

Rickenmann notes he’s seen an interesting phenomenon pop up as he’s talked to various business owners in the last two weeks. He says most of them are less concerned about their own bottom line than they are the well-being of their employees who are suddenly looking at less work hours or even layoffs.

“All the owners I have talked to — and I’ve been spending days on the phone talking to people — weren’t worried about themselves,” Rickenmann says. “They were truly worried about their employees, and what they were going to do and how they were going to get taken care of.”

On March 20, City Council passed a measure it hopes will bolster businesses and help nonprofits, as well as its own public safety departments.

Council unanimously approved a $6 million economic package it calls “A Resilient Columbia.” The initiative — which is tapping into interest earnings from the city’s water and sewer fund — infuses cash into a number of initiatives.

Among the highlights, the package has $1 million that will be set aside for a loan loss reserve fund, through which the city would offer forgivable loans for businesses. The mayor believes business owners could use funds they receive through the city’s forgivable fund to help get additional loan funding from private banks.

“The thought is, if we put up $1 million, then it leverages a larger amount of private sector money, because our money is first risk,” Benjamin says. “So, we think that this $1 million could leverage at least another $4 million in private loan money.”

The package also makes way for another $500,000 for an additional, zero-interest forgivable loan program that specifically targets small businesses that have less than 100 employees. No franchises or chains could tap into that particular fund. The types of businesses targeted with that loan program would include restaurants, retail shops, barbers and salons, cleaning services, small event venues and more.

The infusion also has $3 million for a host of public safety measures, including equipment and recruiting and retention for the police department, as well as funds for the fire department, emergency management, 911 and information technology.

The economic sustainability program sets aside at total of $750,000 for critical nonprofits, including $250,000 for Senior Resources to organize and deliver meals to senior citizens during the pandemic.

The plan also looks to ease the financial burden on citizens in smaller ways. The city is waiving all penalties on any hospitality tax fee collections from bars and restaurants through the end of June. Also, it is suspending all fees for online credit card payments for people paying their bills via the internet. Meanwhile, the city’s deadline for business license fee payments has been backed up to May 15.

Benjamin says that a sustainability package at this stage of the coronavirus outbreak was a must. He notes this pandemic is unlike other emergencies that have afflicted states and American communities through the years.

“If Houston has a flood or Tampa has a storm or Dayton, Ohio has a tornado, we come to each other’s aid, naturally,” Benjamin says. “That’s what we do. We load up a truck of supplies through our Columbia relief fund and we send it on over there. And they do the same for us.

“But this is hitting the entire country at the same time. There’s no cavalry coming for anyone. We are not sending fire trucks anywhere else. We are forced to reckon with how we sustain our local economies, how we sustain our quality of life here.”

But even as the city approved its own economic stimulus, Rickenmann thinks the state also should be part of the solution for businesses suffering during COVID-19. Specifically, he thinks the Legislature should put the state’s nearly $2 billion budget surplus this year toward a business bailout.

“We ought to have a fast-track system,” at the state level, the councilman says. “We have $1.8 billion in surplus that came into the state in taxpayer money. That all ought to be used to help businesses and people get back up on their feet. We are in such an unknown time.

“I think we’re survivors. In previous recessions, we’ve been strong. This one is hitting us from a side we’re not used to. It’s hitting from every angle.”

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Reverend Paul Aebischer and his wife, Reverend Virginia Aebischer, of West Columbia set up a “drive-thru” prayer lane for people seeking spiritual guidance outside Ebenezer Lutheran Church on Sumter Street where Paul serves as pastor. Photo by Thomas Hammond

Spreading Out

Duvall, the second-term at-large councilman and former longtime director of the state Municipal Association, has been one of the most pointedly vocal members of Council during the coronavirus crisis, particularly as it relates to social distancing. He tells Free Times he is in full support of the various measures the city has taken to keep people away from one another during the pandemic. He thinks sacrifices now will pay off later.

“In my mind, I think if we can flatten the curve, so that we don’t have the high spike in confirmed cases and overwhelm our medical facilities, then we can get through this crisis quicker,” Duvall says. “I think the short-term pain may prevent long-term pain. It just has to be done. You look at California, where there [is a state order to stay at home]. We are a long way from a lockdown [in Columbia or South Carolina]. But if this thing was to take off the way it could, that may be an option that the governor or the mayor and City Council would have to take.

“So, people need to understand this is a dangerous virus. We need to do everything we can to flatten the growth of it.”

Changes in the way a city does business haven’t been exclusive to Columbia. Across the river in Lexington, town officials also have been making changes to the way the city operates day-to-day.

Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall tells Free Times that Lexington Town Hall is closed to the public, and the town is asking citizens to do their municipal business either online or through a drive-thru. Non-essential staff has been told to work at home.

The Lexington Police Department, meanwhile, is taking reports for non-violent incidents over the telephone, rather than responding to the scenes. Lexington officers are, of course, still responding in-person to emergencies.

MacDougall also says that the various shifts of police officers are being asked not to hang out or eat together between shifts, in an effort to prevent any possible virus spread from going from one shift to another.

“We have several different shifts, and shifts are not allowed to co-mingle,” MacDougal says. “We’re trying to keep everybody apart, keep them safe and healthy, so we can maintain order around town and not have our police department go down with this thing.”

Lexington also is giving a break to restaurateurs during the crisis. MacDougall says restaurants and bars in the town, like in Columbia, won’t face penalties on hospitality tax payments during the next couple months. The mayor says the town is also purchasing food from local restaurants to feed essential employees during the crisis.

“The government shouldn’t be in a money grab at this point,” MacDougall says. “We should be propping people up, and that’s what we are going to try and do.”

MacDougall, who has been Lexington’s mayor since 2013, admits the COVID-19 situation has been trying. As of March 23, Lexington County had 12 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and had tallied one of the state’s three deaths in association with the disease.

“It has been very stressful,” the mayor says. “It’s life and death for some of our residents, and that’s a big burden to carry. What is amazing to me, though, is the amount of people who are willing to do things and go out of their way to commit themselves to volunteering. But, it has been stressful.

“But, we will get through it, and we will survive it. But, it will be one of those things we talk about for years and years and years.”

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