In Murrells Inlet, an estimated 2,000 maskless patrons packed shoulder-to-shoulder into a biker bar, yelling enthusiastically toward the stage.
Three days later in Columbia, hundreds of similarly unmasked USC students packed even more tightly onto an outdoor patio, while others waited in a crush of students to get inside a bar in the Five Points bar district.
Slightly less crowded but similarly COVID-unaware scenes repeat themselves every weekend at high school and college football games, and such super-spreader events doubtless are occurring across the state in smaller but still significant numbers, beyond the notice of local news media.
It was probably a coincidence that the gathering at Suck Bang Blow occurred just hours after Gov. Henry McMaster lifted social distancing requirements on restaurants and bars earlier this month; patrons were routinely violating the face covering requirement that remained in place and that the bar had agreed to in order to get state approval for more than 250 people to attend.
The Pavlov’s incident in Columbia was a direct response to the governor’s order: The owner had just re-opened the bar after keeping it closed for months because of previous orders that set a 50% limit on occupancy, required six feet between tables and a maximum of eight people at a table and prohibited people from congregating in bar areas.
But even with the tougher bar and restaurant restrictions gone, local officials have the tools available to shut down super-spreader events if they choose to. The problem is that many are choosing not to.
The governor’s emergency order still requires patrons to wear masks at restaurants and bars except when they are in the act of eating or drinking. And some local ordinances, including Columbia’s, require people to wear masks outdoors if they’re not 6 feet from others.
More significantly, S.C. Code Section 16-7-10(1)(b) says that during a state of emergency, it’s illegal for people to “congregate, unless authorized or in their homes, in groups of three or more and to refuse to disperse upon order of a law enforcement officer.” The key here is an officer ordering them to disperse. And the governor’s emergency declaration actually orders state and local police to use that law if they determine “that any such congregation or gathering of people poses, or could pose, a threat to public health.”
Certainly, Mr. McMaster shouldn’t have loosened the social distancing requirements, particularly since state law makes it impossible to apply different rules for bars and restaurants (a problem itself that the Legislature needs to address).
And DHEC needs to crack down on bars and restaurants that ignore the remaining restrictions, by shutting them down in extreme cases, just like it would if they were running filthy kitchens that endanger public health.
The state Revenue Department, likewise, needs to strip liquor licenses from bars that flout what restrictions remain — as it is trying to do with Suck Bang Blow as a result of a similar event in the spring.
And the Commerce Department needs to stop signing off on practically every organization that asks for an exemption from the governor's 250-person limit on gatherings — particularly when, as with the Murrell’s Inlet bar, it has a history as a bad actor.
But with or without any of that happening, local police — and the elected officials they work for — need to take some responsibility as well. Police were present at both bars but didn't even make an effort to enforce restrictions.
Mr. McMaster argued for months that mask mandates aren’t enforceable, and it’s true that police could never arrest everybody who violates one — just like police can’t arrest everybody who drives over the speed limit. But as we've seen with Charleston's ordinance, they certainly can write tickets when they come upon egregious examples of people flouting the law. In fact, it’s a dereliction of duty not to do so.