South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster faced a defining challenge this year as a new and deadly disease ravaged the state, forcing difficult decisions that often pitted public health concerns against the needs of a cratering economy.
A Post and Courier review of more than 10,000 emails from South Carolina’s early response to the pandemic, coupled with interviews with key figures involved, reveals how state leaders struggled to balance those concerns in the face of an invisible threat.
In the month after the state’s first reported case of COVID-19, hundreds of South Carolinians flooded McMaster’s office with emails that reflected a growing sense of alarm.
For weeks, state after state had issued mandatory orders shutting down businesses and ordering people to stay home to contain the virus’ spread. South Carolina workers and retirees looked to McMaster for similar protection, some recounting how their jobs or the carelessness of others had put them at risk.
“We cannot afford to rely on our citizens to use good judgment,” wrote Clyde Stuckey, a Hartsville resident, stressing that every COVID-19 death is preventable. “Most do, but there are many people who do not. ... I cannot think of anything more important for you to enforce during your time as governor.”
But even as citizens pleaded for stronger restrictions, companies across the state bent the governor’s ear for exceptions to stay open in the event of a lockdown. In email after email, large manufacturers, small retail stores and hundreds of other businesses warned the governor that a shutdown could disrupt crucial supply chains or put them out of business for good.
Those conflicting pressures came as McMaster’s greatest political benefactor, Republican President Donald Trump, publicly downplayed the severity of the virus and predicted the country could return to normal by Easter.
The cache of emails, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, detail the many challenges facing the governor, who displayed a persistent reluctance to taking aggressive actions against the virus that might shrink the economy and cost South Carolinians their jobs. They provide a backdrop that helps explain why he was the last of 42 U.S. governors to issue a mandatory stay-at-home order and one of the first to reopen his state, siding with industry leaders over his own public health experts.
The emails also reveal how a lack of direction from above led city and county officials to pass their own patchwork sets of uneven curfews, business shutdowns and mask rules, all while trying to win over a public that remained divided over what course of action, if any, was necessary.
The resulting approach only briefly contained the virus before South Carolina reopened this summer and case numbers soared, making the state one of the world’s worst COVID-19 hotspots for a time.
“We were too slow,” said Linda Kelemen, a Harvard-educated cancer and molecular genetic epidemiologist who lives in Charleston. “(McMaster) delayed the inevitable, and that’s what frustrated me. It’s not like we didn’t know what was going to happen. We saw it happening in China. We saw it happening in Spain, Italy and Europe.”
The trove of emails provides a unique window into the state's early response to the pandemic and potential lessons for the future as South Carolina confronts the possibility of a fall surge from a disease that has already claimed the lives of more than 3,000 of the state's residents.
The emails show the response played out against a rapidly moving timeline in this way:
‘Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who to believe?'
More than a month before South Carolina’s first COVID-19 case, public health staffers at the Department of Health and Environmental Control were closely monitoring the virus as it traversed the globe.
During the first week of January, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alerted DHEC to the discovery of a new virus in Wuhan, China.
“Let us watch the development of this outbreak case reported from CDC closely,” DHEC’s lab director wrote to several colleagues.
DHEC workers did just that, leaning hard on alerts from the CDC over the next three weeks. They participated in conference calls with federal health officials. As the severity of the situation grew, they debated how to investigate potential cases.
They closely monitored the CDC’s advice about “persons of interest” — the types of people who should get tested. But the agency’s guidance was very narrow, advising that testing be focused only on people who had been to China.
DHEC struggled so much with that notion that state epidemiologist Linda Bell, who had not yet become a household name in South Carolina, sent an email surveying her peers in other states to see how they were preparing. The responses came back quickly. Some states, including North Carolina, were taking a more aggressive approach to identifying potential cases. Others, like South Carolina, were mostly watching and waiting.
Over and over, DHEC scientists described the situation as “rapidly evolving.”
They pored over new studies, including some that raised more questions than they answered. They debated the definition of terms, like “close contact,” that would soon dominate their recommendations on testing and quarantines. They emailed each other past midnight about the new virus.
“Yep, this is why policy makers challenge us when we make recommendations for policy and practice based on research,” Abdoulaye Diedhiou, a DHEC scientist, wrote to a colleague. “Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who to believe?”
On Jan. 21, the CDC confirmed America’s first COVID-19 case, in Washington state. Health officials across South Carolina began asking DHEC for guidance. Collene Bridier, the Medical University of South Carolina’s director of infection control, suggested DHEC advise the governor to institute a 14-day quarantine for travelers who had been in high-risk areas of the United States.
“Sort of like we did w Ebola,” she wrote, referencing the West African fever that put U.S. public health officials on edge in 2014.
But it wasn’t until late-January that DHEC had substantive discussions with McMaster about the virus. That set off a flurry of meetings and emails about how to describe the situation. Dozens of emails show staffers agonizing over sentences for press briefings and a rehab of the website to handle COVID-19 reporting — a trend that would continue for months.
They even held a mock exercise involving someone arriving in South Carolina from Wuhan, drilling how the agency would respond. In just over a month, the virus itself would arrive in the Palmetto State.
Grasping the threat
In early March, McMaster and Bell considered the COVID-19 threat minimal, even after the state’s first cases appeared in Kershaw County. Based on the CDC’s guidance at the time, they stressed there was no need to panic.
People could continue their daily routines, so long as they washed their hands more often and covered their coughs.
“There’s no cause for alarm or speculation,” McMaster said on March 9, when South Carolina had just seven known cases of the virus.
Bell said there was no evidence of community spread and, thus, no reason to close schools or cancel events.
Over the next few days, other states would ban large gatherings and festivals. McMaster and Bell were in unison in deciding not to follow their lead.
As the situation evolved, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin told the governor that the city planned to postpone its St. Patrick’s Day festival over concerns the tightly packed celebration in Columbia’s Five Points bar district could become a superspreading event.
Benjamin also asked the governor to cancel the Carolina Cup, a horse race and drinking shindig that draws thousands of people every year to Camden, site of South Carolina’s first and largest COVID-19 outbreak.
McMaster disagreed with canceling both events, saying commerce should go on, said Benjamin, a critic of McMaster’s COVID-19 response and a potential Democratic candidate for governor in 2022. The governor said he still planned to serve as grand marshal of the city of Greenville’s St. Patrick’s Day parade a few days later.
Benjamin wondered if McMaster fully grasped the gravity of the situation.
The governor declined to be interviewed for this story. But his supporters note McMaster took the pandemic seriously enough to fashion the state’s response after South Carolina’s all-hands-on-deck hurricane preparations.
That meant daily conference calls with county emergency management officials at 10 a.m., then huddles with state agency chiefs every day at 12:30 p.m.
McMaster would occasionally interrupt those calls to declare “we’ve got to fix that” or “that’s unacceptable” when he heard something he didn’t like.
The governor also filled his daily call logs with conversations with local officials and lawmakers from across the state. He sat in on coronavirus briefings with Vice President Mike Pence and 49 other governors.
The Carolina Cup and the Greenville St. Patrick’s Day parade ultimately were cancelled on March 12, part of a 48-hour span in which actor Tom Hanks announced he and his wife had contracted the virus, major sports leagues suspended their seasons and 36 governors — McMaster included — declared states of emergency. McMaster was involved in both decisions to cancel, even if he previously wanted them to go on, his office said.
‘South Carolina is unique’
Over a four-decade career in politics, McMaster became known for his unswerving belief in South Carolina’s exceptionalism. He has called the Palmetto State a “paradise” and sworn by the potential of her people. The 73-year-old’s outlook has been one of his most endearing qualities in political circles, even among critics who view him as overly optimistic.
That faith remained even as the virus multiplied across the state amid reports of large gatherings that flouted social distancing guidelines. At press conference after press conference, McMaster insisted South Carolinians would take responsibility to protect themselves and others, rendering a government mandate unnecessary.
“South Carolina is unique,” he said April 3, even as the state reached 1,700 cases. “Our people, our structure is unique.”
In lieu of a total lockdown, McMaster in March surgically imposed a series of orders banning large gatherings, limiting access to beaches and lakes, and closing some businesses.
He urged people to stay home, echoing advice from Bell, but he didn’t require them to do so. Besides, the former U.S. attorney and state attorney general doubted ordering people into their homes was constitutional, even if other governors were already doing it.
But many South Carolinians didn’t share McMaster’s faith. They emailed his office in droves to document their neighbors’ lack of compliance with social distancing guidance and ask for stronger intervention.
A behavioral services worker named Elizabeth told the governor’s office her boss had instructed her to keep working until she became infected, despite her heightened susceptibility to the respiratory disease because of previous bouts with pneumonia.
A 50-year-old diabetic named Donna, who was still assigned to knocking on customers’ doors for her own job, asked what could be done for people like her who were forced to choose between their paychecks and their health.
Residents from Travelers Rest in the Upstate to Seabrook Island on the coast implored the governor to take a drive through their communities if he needed more evidence his faith had been misplaced. Look at the crowds gathering at home improvement stores and tourist hotspots, they urged.
“Please just rip that Band-Aid off,” wrote Horry County resident Mona Vane. “I know that you think that the people of South Carolina are doing what they’re supposed to do, but they’re not.”
Nine lawmakers added their voices to the chorus. If nothing else, they wrote, issuing a stay-at-home order would get the press off McMaster’s back and show the state he was serious about a virus that many erroneously equated to the seasonal flu.
State Rep. Bart Blackwell, a rank-and-file Republican from Aiken, praised McMaster’s executive orders but emailed the governor’s office several times to complain that McMaster was taking a beating at press conferences.
“I watched the entire press conference yesterday,” Blackwell wrote to a McMaster aide. “The Governor didn’t have a fact based, plausible answer for the dozens of identical questions regarding the (shelter-in-place) order. I respect and admire him tremendously but it appears that he has dug in his heals (sic) and is stubbornly refusing to change his mind. The longer he waits to issue the inevitable order, the harder it will be to explain the wait.”
State Sen. Mia McLeod, a Columbia Democrat, wrote McMaster a series of letters questioning his priorities.
“Yesterday,” McLeod wrote on March 27, “you said that ‘business is our life-blood,’ and ‘the business of SC is business.’ With all due respect, Governor, you’re wrong. The people of South Carolina are the life-blood of this state. And your failure to act will leave their blood on your hands.”
As McMaster resisted imposing a stay-at-home order, pressure mounted on city and county leaders throughout the state to take action at the local level.
As constituents bombarded them with conflicting theories on what should be done, mayors tried to thread a path forward that would protect their communities without getting them sideways with the governor. Some of them urged McMaster to take greater action himself, but to no avail.
In Charleston, Mayor John Tecklenburg consulted with his peers around the region and made plans with MUSC President David Cole and CEO Patrick Cawley for their staffs to touch base at least every 48 hours. They closely followed news of the virus and its devastating toll on Italy and New York.
An MUSC infectious disease specialist, Dr. Robert Ball, forwarded Tecklenburg news of a virus cluster in New York and how the Empire State planned to contain it. He discussed a local task force and the possibility of shutting down schools and large events, arguing it was “highly likely” the pandemic would continue “to worsen in the US into the summer.”
As Tecklenburg read about “super-spreader” events such as a funeral in Albany, Ga., that led to dozens of infections, he became convinced his tourism-driven town needed a way to limit crowds.
Leaders from Beaufort County to the state’s capital of Columbia soon reached the same conclusion after talking extensively with medical professionals and each other.
A few, such as Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie, told the governor of their desire to issue stay-at-home orders.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Haynie wrote in an email to the governor. “If we contain the virus, it will by nature appear that we acted too drastically. If we don’t do enough, we would all be held accountable for tragic loss of life.”
McMaster offered no resistance.
But the governor, known for asking “what if” questions when weighing decisions, asked Haynie to consider the ramifications and how long such an order might last.
“He didn’t discourage it, but he wanted me to think about it,” Haynie said.
Charleston, the state’s largest city and its most vibrant economic hub, became the first municipality to impose a stay-at-home order on March 24. As the state hit 342 cases, the city closed its parks, shut down non-essential businesses and required people to stay indoors as much as possible.
McMaster shrugged off the move in a press conference, saying his call for voluntary action accomplished much the same thing.
Two days later, Columbia adopted a plan similar to Charleston’s. And when Mount Pleasant followed suit on March 31, three of the state’s four largest cities had passed stay-at-home orders the governor wouldn’t.
Behind the scenes, Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey coordinated with Tecklenburg, Haynie, and the mayors of Folly Beach, Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island to draft a letter asking the governor to impose a statewide stay-at-home order. So did four cities in Beaufort County.
McMaster remained steadfast.
‘We will remember it come election time’
One piece of advice seemed to matter above all the rest.
On April 5, DHEC’s interim public health director, Nick Davidson, penned a brief message officially advising the governor to issue the order.
Davidson cited escalating case counts, testing lags that were likely masking a greater outbreak, and South Carolinians’ lack of compliance with previous orders and public health guidance.
The next day, McMaster became the last of 42 U.S. governors to order residents to stay home. Eight other governors, all Republicans, never took that step.
The shutdown was effective — for a time. It slowed the growth of cases so much, new models soon predicted South Carolina had already reached its peak of coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths.
But McMaster faced demands to ease the restrictions almost as soon as he announced them.
Calls for a fast-paced reopening quickly spread across the country, bolstered by a president who urged his supporters to protest stay-at-home orders.
As the state’s unemployment rate soared toward a 44-year high, S.C. residents and businesses owners told the governor his economic shutdown was more harmful than the virus itself.
Some questioned the accuracy of virus models and the threats posed by COVID-19. Upstate Republicans on conservative radio shows likened McMaster to a dictator, calling him “King Henry.”
Retired Marine Maj. Andrew Floyd of Charleston urged McMaster not to be a "nanny" politician who meddles in peoples’ lives.
“Leave that garbage for NY,” Floyd wrote.
Scott Cantrell of Anderson wrote that his wife, a hairdresser, had her income taken away “with a stroke of a pen” and then was denied unemployment.
“If Governor McMaster thinks the people of this state are satisfied with that he’s underestimated us,” Cantrell wrote to Republican state Sen. Richard Cash, who forwarded the message to McMaster. “We will remember it come election time. We want to work in SC and life to resume somewhat back to normal.”
Businesses applied even more pressure as the national economy tumbled.
More than 430 small shops, large manufacturers, corporate giants and trade associations wrote to the governor’s office requesting special exemptions to shutdown orders even before McMaster issued them.
And that was just a fraction of the 4,600 businesses that ultimately submitted requests to stay open to the state Department of Commerce.
Manufacturers stressed their importance to national supply chains, and some promised they could pivot to producing masks, hospital gowns, gloves and other supplies necessary to fighting the pandemic. Delivery services such as Amazon and DoorDash noted they need to ferry groceries and medical supplies to people who are stuck at home.
Food banks and animal shelters reminded the governor’s office that they perform services others won’t.
“If we close, many great domestic animals will die,” wrote Lynn Fayard, a board member for the Oconee Humane Society.
McMaster’s office heard from landscapers, law firms, retail stores, RV dealerships, dry cleaners, florists, telecom giants, hoteliers, architects and auto-repair shops. Many were inventive in explaining why they should remain open.
The Archery Trade Association asked McMaster to mark essential any shops that sell archery gear in case the pandemic left South Carolinians hunting for their next meals.
“In times of crisis, sustainable food sources are critically important,” the group wrote on April 1. “Bowhunting provides access to resources, many on public lands, which can offset supply and demand issues common during these times.”
Town and city leaders also heard an earful. The Yuppie Puppy Pet Salon in Mount Pleasant wrote to town leaders that it should remain essential because it grooms the pets of first responders.
“Our health services for pets include anal gland squeezing, treatment for flea and tick infestation, treatment for irregular skin conditions just to name a few,” it wrote.
The state’s chiropractors argued their offices should remain open to handle benign cases that would otherwise fall to doctors, further stressing the overburdened health care system.
“Based on my emails and texts — there is not a single profession or employer in the state that does not consider themselves essential during a state of emergency,” McMaster’s chief of staff, Trey Walker, wrote to their lobbyist in response.
Many businesses submitted letters that explained steps they had taken to limit their workers’ and customers’ exposure to the virus, including providing masks and reducing staffing levels.
Requests from businesses and their workers sometimes clashed.
A music shop on the Grand Strand was denied an “essential” designation just a few days after one of its employees told state leaders his boss was making him work in close contact with customers. The employee said he worried about bringing the virus back home to his wife, children and 62-year-old grandmother.
“We should not be open and not risking our lives for greed,” the worker wrote.
Some 4,100 businesses — nearly nine of every 10 that submitted a request — were deemed essential and allowed to remain open by the Commerce Department by mid-April.
Getting back to business
Bolstered by projections that the worst was over, and eager to put South Carolina back to work, McMaster moved to quickly reopen the state.
The White House Coronavirus Task Force had advised states to hold off until they had observed a two-week decrease in COVID-19 case counts or the percentage of people testing positive — benchmarks South Carolina had never hit.
McMaster’s own public health advisers at DHEC had advised caution, as well, emails show.
On April 19, DHEC’s chief of staff, Jennifer Read, wrote to the governor’s office that the same model indicating that South Carolina had already reached its peak for COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths was recommending the state keep restrictions in place until early June.
She stated that data showed the governor’s executive orders were working. The data “is moving in a positive direction right now, but it’s too early to say we’ve passed the peak of the outbreak or are seeing a consistent trend.”
The next day, McMaster announced he would allow beaches and retail stores to reopen, and he created a task force designed to find ways to jumpstart the economy.
McMaster weighed the science against a host of other factors, including South Carolinians’ deteriorating economic and mental well-being during the lockdown and conversations with Trump and other governors, said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes. In the end, he decided the state couldn’t afford to prolong the shutdown.
The name of McMaster’s task force, AccelerateSC, was no accident.
Made up of 30 business leaders, hospital executives, mayors and state agency chiefs, it worked quickly to develop guidelines for segments of the economy to safely reopen — holding 17 meetings in a little more than a month. Members discussed the need for greater testing and contact tracing to stamp out future outbreaks and prevent hospitals from being overrun. But they were also cognizant of how the lockdown affected businesses and everyday workers.
Industry leaders had a big say in the process. Trade groups like the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association and S.C. Recreation and Parks Association got to write the first draft of their own reopening guidelines. Their suggestions were then reviewed and edited by DHEC and debated by AccelerateSC before they reached the governor’s desk.
McMaster was personally involved. He and Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette attended some of its meetings. He received briefings on others from James Burns, the Nelson Mullins attorney he appointed to lead the task force.
He became known for peppering Burns and his agency chiefs with questions about how a proposal might affect state residents, tourists and business owners. He wanted assurances businesses could get the staffing and equipment necessary to follow AccelerateSC’s guidelines before the task force issued them.
McMaster continued to push ahead with industry-driven plans that methodically eased restrictions on the economy, even when it conflicted with his public health guidance.
On May 4, he lifted his stay-at-home order — less than a month after it went into effect — despite Read’s request that restrictions remain in place until June.
Ahead of that announcement, Read emailed the governor’s office to advise McMaster hold off on a plan, drafted by the Restaurant and Lodging Association, to reopen restaurants for indoor dining until May 11.
DHEC wanted the governor to wait until at least May 18 so the agency could gauge the impact of lifting the stay-at-home order and reopening outdoor dining and retail stores before easing more restrictions, Read wrote on May 1.
McMaster sided with the Restaurant and Lodging Association, announcing a week later that indoor dining would be allowed on May 11.
The decision opened a rift between McMaster and DHEC’s top epidemiologist, Bell. She wrote to colleagues that she felt manipulated after the governor’s spokesman indicated she supported McMaster’s decision because she stood alongside him at the press conference announcing it.
“I feel a need for stronger statements from DHEC about what we need if we are to get our disease rates under control,” Bell wrote in a memo. “I don’t want to continue to walk this fine line as more and more lives are at risk.”
At least one member of AccelerateSC also felt disillusioned with the pace of South Carolina’s reopening.
John Winarchick, an Orangeburg businessman who served on the task force, wrote in several emails that he wasn’t comfortable with the proposed guidelines for reopening tourist attractions and restaurants.
Winarchick, the former CEO of Zeus Industrial Products, thought the guidance for attractions lacked specificity and were far too voluntary. He said the proposal would not “effectively prevent COVID-19 infections from spreading.” And he stressed that reopening restaurants too early could hamper public confidence in the state’s reopening plan.
He encouraged the committee to spend more time polishing the guidance before sending it to McMaster’s desk.
In response, three task force leaders — Burns, Explore Charleston CEO Helen Hill and Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Duane Parrish — huddled together privately to discuss how to handle Winarchick’s concerns.
Hill wrote to Burns and Parrish that she appreciated Winarchick’s comments “but I adamantly disagree with the premise that we need to act more slowly.”
“We need to do the exact opposite,” Hill wrote, “and move as quickly as possible to allow these businesses the time they need to make their individual decisions based on their individual circumstances. Just because they are allowed to open does not mean that they will open.”
Winarchick recalls being overruled at AccelerateSC meetings. He thought the committee began with a noble goal of trying to balance public safety and the need to reopen. But by the end, he concluded the committee was treating the coronavirus more like an inconvenience than an emergency.
“I just kind of lost faith in the process,” he said.
The virus has proven the greatest test of McMaster’s nearly four years as governor, one every bit as unpredictable as a hurricane, politically precarious as a tax hike and complex as the debate over education reform.
The state’s hasty reopening preceded a surge in cases that threatened to overwhelm the state’s hospitals, subsiding only when the general public adopted widespread mask usage.
Months later, at least 139,000 South Carolinians have been infected, and more than 3,200 have died. State residents have come to accept the new and uneasy balance of living with the virus. They wear masks to the grocery store, watch sporting events played in mostly empty stadiums, and barely flinch at daily case counts that number in the hundreds. Their greatest hope at normalcy is a vaccine that could still be months away.
“The virus is still here,” McMaster said earlier this month after the death of a public school teacher from COVID-19. “People are going to get it. ... We have to be careful, but we have to move forward. We cannot live in fear of the virus and shut down every institution in sight. It will not work, and it certainly won’t work here.”
A poll last month found South Carolina residents are split on McMaster’s handling of the pandemic. Critics have blasted him for waiting too long to shut down the state, reopening it too early and refusing to order residents across the state to wear masks despite data showing such mandates are effective.
“I think the proof is in the pudding,” said state Rep. Gary Clary, a Pickens Republican. “I thought the response was very slow. Certainly, leadership was lacking.”
But defenders say McMaster did well to protect both South Carolina’s economy and her people against an unexpected crisis. Parrish, McMaster’s tourism director, likened the challenge to flying an airplane while it was still being built.
“But you had to get the plane off the ground,” he said. “We did the best we could, everyone — both in the private sector, government.”
The months ahead will show with more certainty whether what was done was enough.
Glenn Smith and Tony Bartelme contributed to this report.