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Editorial: It's too soon for McMaster to reopen SC beaches, shops. That will extend the pain

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Visitors flocked to Folly Beach in late March, before Gov. Henry McMaster ordered all beaches closed  to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Brad Nettles/ Staff

Even before Gov. Henry McMaster had announced his plan to reopen South Carolina’s beaches, sevearal beach communities announced that they wouldn’t be lifting entry restrictions just yet.

It was the right decision.

South Carolina seems to have turned a corner and to be headed in the right direction in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which calculates the projections published by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, altered its predictions Friday to say we have passed the peak of coronavirus-related hospital usage and deaths. Now, according to the updated projection, the state can expect a total of 217 COVID-19 patients to die by August — down from 680 deaths predicted earlier in the week and less than twice the number who already have died.

That is a tremendous success, which shows the payoff for the pain we’ve inflicted on our economy and the damage we’ve done to our children’s education, not to mention our own emotional well-being.

But we need to see that as encouragement to hang in there a little longer — not as an excuse to give up the fight prematurely. As much as all of us want to get back to something akin to normalcy, and as much as we know we can’t keep so much of the economy in deep-freeze forever, it is simply too early to make more than modest adjustments to our restrictions. And despite Mr. McMaster's assurances to the contrary, this adjustment is more than modest.

Even the much higher death projections were based on some level of social distancing. And the new projections assume that the current restrictions will remain in place through at least June 1. That’s six weeks from now.

South Carolina hasn’t met even the minimum 14-day improvement in the number of people with COVID-19 symptoms and positive test results that the Trump administration has advised for starting to relax restrictions. The number of positive tests might have peaked on April 15 — and it might not have. The number of deaths might have peaked on April 9. Or maybe on April 16, depending on whose numbers you use. But these numbers are small enough (and thank goodness for that) that even a slight uptick in the next few days could reverse the trajectory before we reach two weeks.

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And the medical experts at DHEC and the Medical University of South Carolina say we don’t have the capacity to test all at-risk medical workers, much less conduct rapid testing, isolation and contact tracing of all new infections, as the federal plan also recommends before states lift restrictions.

It’s one thing to reopen boat ramps … and allow hospitals to resume nonemergency surgery … and even to allow local governments to reopen the beaches if they want to. It is quite another to reopen pretty much the entire retail sector.

Mr. McMaster stressed Monday that his home-or-work order won’t be lifted and that reopened businesses will have to meet the same five customers per 1,000-square-feet rules that grocery stores do. But keeping that order in place doesn’t mean a lot when we’re rapidly expanding the number of people who can go to work and adding more “or’s” — inviting people to spend the day at the beach, or go browsing for books, luggage, crafting supplies, furniture, flowers or flutes, or go flea-marketing.

Mr. McMaster’s stay-home order already was limited, since he never shut down anywhere near all of the retail sector — and since his Commerce Department has been extremely liberal in its interpretation of which businesses remain essential. Rolling it back even more — even with social-distancing requirements built in — further increases the number of people who can be exposed to COVID-19. And that risks increasing the number of illnesses and deaths, straining our medical system and further hurting the economy, and plunging us back into even longer stay-at-home orders. The upside is simply not worth the downside at this point.

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