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FOOD

What impact will McMaster’s new COVID-19 restaurant mandates have at this point?

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Masked servers at Blue Marlin / photo by John Carlos

Earlier this summer, Frank Adams was frustrated. With the state recommending, but not mandating restaurants and other businesses to wear masks, the former South Carolina journalist and state political staffer didn’t know where he would be safe and where he wouldn’t.

He found the situation fundamentally unfair to businesses and potentially dangerous to everyone involved.

“We’re asking people who are out there trying to earn a living in an entrepreneurial environment, we’re asking them to be the judge, jury and the cop and everything else,” Adams shares. “You know they’re slinging hash, they’re not wearing a badge and they don’t have handcuffs. … That isn’t their job.”

Adams couldn’t find a resource that would give him the answers, so he decided to harness the power of social media. He started a Facebook group called “Support SC businesses that protect YOU!” And, over four weeks, he saw the group grow to almost 2,000 members.

The group’s members have frequently posted about the stars and black sheep of the pandemic. An Aug. 1 post showered love on Cayce’s Duke’s Pad Thai for its workers wearing masks and gloves. On July 31, another member shared that Lexington’s Walmart employees weren’t wearing masks over their noses.

“Shop another Walmart!” another member responded.

It’s a real-time experiment in the effectiveness of social media, and it’s illustrative of the frustrations that persist among customers who want to maintain normalcy, but fear the dangers of getting back to normal too early.

“I’ve got hundreds of people who are very concerned about how to spend their money,” Adams says. “There’s hundred of beautiful stories about the people who are in this for the safety of their families, their own personal safety … so we are trying to reward and send our business to businesses that are doing what they can to protect people that are taking the steps forward.”

On July 29, Gov. Henry McMaster gave Adams what he’d wanted in the first place, announcing that the various recommendations for restaurants to operate — tables spaced six feet apart, employees and patrons required to wear masks, 50 percent occupancy limit and no more than eight customers at a table — are now mandated. In a seemingly contradictory move, though, he cleared the reopening of a variety of types of businesses.

The penalty for not following the new restaurant mandates? Fines, jail time and the temporary loss of alcohol licenses, per reporting from the The Post and Courier‘s Seanna Adcox.

“These limited restrictions are temporary, they are measured, and they are targeted towards what we know works,” McMaster said at his July 29 press conference. “These measures give South Carolina the best chance to slow the spread of the virus without shutting down the state’s economy — which we cannot and will not do — as many continue to call for.”

McMaster explained the restaurant mandates are intended to curb the virus’ spread while maintaining economic activity, yet Adams thinks it could have a secondary effect — increasing confidence among those who are wary to eat out, like many in his group.

“The social acceptance of the governor’s action will mean that so many people will feel that some degree of normalcy has been restored to their life,” Adams elaborates. “I definitely believe this is going to be a major boost towards achieving consumer confidence.”

Restaurant owners Free Times spoke to are uncertain that this will be the case and stress that issues caused by the various restrictions on business persist.

At Foxfield Bar and Grille, owner Becca Savage-Kinsey says some customers refuse to come in because they won’t wear a mask, while others are still wary and will only get to-go food.

She thinks the mask mandate could make a difference for some folks, but will do little to quell those who are politically against mask wearing.

“I don’t think it’s going to make a [difference],” Savage-Kinsey posits.

And while consumer confidence is an issue, she says the state’s 11 p.m. sales curfew on alcohol, enacted on July 11, is hurting her business.

Mason Crowson, owner of Vista cocktail bar The Aristocrat, agrees. He says that he is pleased that masks are now mandated, but he says that, overall, the tactics are frustrating — the hours after 11 p.m. are when the bar brings in most of its profits.

He calls out the state for not having consistency in its approach — pointing to schools prepping to reopen — and says it’s hypocrisy. Yet, he adds that he doesn’t fully blame McMaster, saying the state as a whole needs to get on board with safety measures.

“South Carolina needs to buckle up. Wear a mask, do whatever you need to do,” Crowson says.

With the mandates taking effect on Aug. 3, Adams openly ponders what the future of his small Facebook community will look like, or if it’s needed. He expects members to behave in a similar way, observing businesses and reporting on compliance.

He also wonders whether or not they had any influence on the governor’s decision, as far fetched as that sounds. In his experience in government, he says a simple letter can have an outsized effect on a politician. So why not 2,000 people posting daily in a Facebook group?

“I’m so grateful, I mean, I had no idea I would get 2,000 people. I had no idea I would get 200 people,” he says. “It’s sometimes when you got nothing to do, and when you want to do something, you pick up and hit a home run. I think this was a home run.”

David Clarey joined Free Times in November 2019 as a food and news writer. He's constantly fighting competing desires to try cooking food at home and spending his entire paycheck on Columbia restaurants.

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