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Editorial: Stay home, South Carolina. Together, we can get through the coronavirus pandemic

Virus Outbreak South Carolina

SC Gov. Henry McMaster speaks as everyone practices social distancing during a news conference at the South Carolina Emergency Operations Center on Thursday. AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins

Assume that everyone you see is infected with the coronavirus.

If you absolutely must leave home, keep your distance from others. And limit where and how often you go.

Don’t touch anything you don’t have to outside your home. Don’t touch your face unless you just washed your hands.

Assume that you are one of the many people with symptomless COVID-19. Cough into your elbow, not your hands. If you don’t feel well, stay home.

If you feel fine but don’t absolutely have to go out, stay home. Stay home. Stay home. As the highway signs you shouldn’t be seeing very much say: “Save lives now. Stay home.”

We’ve memorized the litany of conoravirus precautions by now.

If we were all responsible grownups who didn’t imagine that bad things couldn’t happen to us or  that doom-and-gloom scenarios never materialize, we wouldn’t need the government to order us to follow them, and make it difficult to disobey. When we first saw community spread of COVID-19, we would have strictly limited our contact. With everybody.

And some of us did.

Professional and college sports leagues led the way, without anyone in the government even hinting that they had to. For weeks, businesses have been telling their employees to telecommute. Where that wasn’t an option, they ordered social distancing; today the outliers are businesses that are not ensuring that their employees are protected.

People started limiting their visits to restaurants, postponing dental appointments, skipping the theater and ordering home supplies online. Churches moved their worship services online. Gyms took a break. Department stores closed. Office supply stores closed. Not all of the businesses or churches or individuals, but a lot. And without a single government order.

Unfortunately, not everyone acts responsibly. So government has had to step in, to limit our activities more than otherwise would be necessary, in order to protect the less cautious from themselves, and to protect all of us from them.

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Gov. Henry McMaster has reasonably taken an incremental approach to the coronavirus pandemic — first closing schools, then bars and restaurants and then empowering police to break up groups of three or more — that he hoped would be sufficient to slow the rate of infection and protect our hospitals from being overwhelmed. After another weekend when people crowded to the shore, he shut off public access to the beaches, lakes and rivers on Monday. He followed up Tuesday by ordering the closure of recreational, athletic and entertainment venues as well as nonessential close-contact personal-service businesses such as barbershops and tanning salons.

The governor still hasn’t issued a “stay-at-home” order that a lot of people are clamoring for. But the practical effect of the stay-at-home ordinances in Charleston, Columbia and Mount Pleasant isn’t likely to be a lot different than his latest order closing a set of specific businesses and venues.

The local ordinances allow people to leave their homes for a walk or other individual recreational activities, to go to the grocery store, drug store, liquor store, hardware or home improvement store, to the bank or a lawyer’s office, to shop for a car or a house, to pick up food from a restaurant. In other words, they don’t really require anyone to stay at home; they merely limit the places they can go — at a time when dine-in restaurants and bars are already off-limits statewide, and more and more of the retail businesses that Mr. McMaster would allow to remain open are already closed.

We can debate whether the governor has closed too little — or even whether Charleston has exempted too much from closure. We don’t want to impose restrictions so draconian that people refuse to obey them, but we also don’t want to do less than is necessary to make people understand that we’re facing a serious threat.

But that’s a matter of degree in a question that doesn’t have a clear answer, as people across our state, nation and world struggle to find the best way to stop this pandemic. And it’s a sign of the incredible difficulty inherent in trying to slow the spread of a dangerous disease without choking off the economy that every one of us relies on.

The good news is that traffic on the interstates is down by two-thirds, and some city and suburban streets are only a little busier than on Christmas Eve. So whether they’re optimal or not, the state orders and urgings and the local ordinances are having the desired effect of convincing more and more people to stay home, which is our best tool for slowing the spread of the virus. It’s something all of us must continue to do, whether the law requires it or not.

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