COLUMBIA — The latest coronavirus-related executive order from Gov. Henry McMaster includes a no-congregating rule that could leave some small bars without room for their customers and could force some to close, hospitality industry leaders said Tuesday.
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the rules enacted Monday require social distancing, specifying that customers not stand together in one area of the business. Every set of customers needs to have seats separate from other groups.
"Restaurants shall not allow patrons and customers to stand or congregate in any bar area," the governor's order reads. "Restaurants shall remove bar stools or arrange them in a manner that will ensure that customers and patrons are able to maintain a minimum of six feet of separation from other parties."
The order also requires that restaurants and bars require masks or other face coverings be worn by customers "except while actively engaged in eating or drinking."
Legally in South Carolina, bars operate under the laws for restaurants. An earlier order from the governor required that the on-premise sale or consumption of alcohol end at 11 p.m.
It's unclear how bars can operate under these rules, especially smaller places that would be hard-pressed to provide seats with space for bar customers, said Steve Cook, a restaurateur and chairman of the board for the Five Points Association in Columbia.
"It almost makes it impossible to open," Cook said.
For high-end restaurants, such as his Saluda's, the new rules mostly give the force of law to guidelines that the businesses have been following, Cook said. Restaurants now must be watchful for customers who greet people they know at the bar and stop to talk — that's a rule violation that potentially could put a liquor license in jeopardy, he said.
The executive order is intended to help stop the coronavirus from being passed in public gatherings, using social distancing rules and masks, McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said.
"The governor has limited the ability of the virus to be spread in these environments," Symmes said.
Bars tend to attract younger customers at a time when COVID-19 cases are spiking among them. South Carolinians between ages 21 and 30 make up the largest portion of COVID-19 cases, according to state data. The order comes as college students prepare to return to campuses.
Coronavirus cases have fallen in recent weeks across the state, but they remain well above levels when the governor eased restrictions, including ending a work-or-home order and lifting a ban on inside dining, in May.
Big gatherings in places such as bars now pose substantial risks to public health, Symmes said, and the governor hopes that people also avoid such events at private homes, which are beyond the scope of his order.
"This simply isn't an environment where people need to be in large groups," he said.
McMaster has seen how the virus is spreading among younger people and wants to ensure that customers don't gather together in crowds, said Bobby Williams, chairman of Lizard's Thicket and the S.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association.
Many bars, Williams said, won't see the point of staying in operation under these rules on seating and 11 p.m. closures.
"It's going to close them down," he said.
Restaurants, meanwhile, have not seen enough customers return to push up against the rule capping occupancy at 50 percent. For many, business is down 60 percent or more, Williams said, even in sought-after dining spots in downtown Charleston.
Brook Bristow, executive director of the South Carolina Brewers Guild and an attorney at Bristow Beverage Law, sees bars facing a struggle over their indoor square footage and where they can put patrons outside.
For those without much space, the latest rules on seating could prompt them to shut their doors again, Bristow said.
"At a certain point, it just costs you more to be open," he said.
Many breweries are businesses that are five years old or less, and they have been eating into scarce capital to stay in business, he said. Many do not have huge cash reserves, instead taking their revenues and putting them back into the business.
Now they find themselves struggling to reach their customers. It's an added challenge because S.C. law limits how much beer customers can buy in one visit, Bristow said, and does not allow home delivery of alcoholic beverages, even in grocery orders.
Public events currently are limited to 250 people or 50 percent of a venue's usual capacity, whichever is lower. For a particular event, locations with space to host more than 250 people and observe social distancing can apply to the S.C. Department of Commerce for an exemption, Symmes said.
There is an exemption in the governor's latest order for religious services, weddings, government events and official activities such as school sessions.