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'Essential' businesses making their case with SC governor to remain open

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JW Aluminum expansion February 2020 (copy)

The JW Aluminum plant in Goose Creek is among businesses making their case to remain open if a shelter-in-place order is issued in South Carolina. File/Provided

Gov. Henry McMaster's office is being inundated with notices from businesses that say they want to continue operating if a shelter-in-place order is issued in response to the coronavirus, even though McMaster said he is not yet considering such an order.

The notices are in response to a federal memo that broadly outlines the types of businesses considered essential to "ensuring continuity of functions critical to public health and safety, as well as economic and national security" during a crisis, such as the current outbreak of coronavirus, known as the COVID-19 pandemic. The memo was issued Thursday by Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security office.

Those essential businesses include sectors such as health care, energy and law enforcement as well as transportation, public works and critical manufacturing.

"Functioning critical infrastructure is imperative during the response to the COVID-19 emergency for both public health and safety as well as community well-being," the memo states. "Certain critical infrastructure industries have a special responsibility in these times to continue operations."

In other states where shelter-in-place orders have been issued, the question of what constitutes an essential business varies. There are reports of businesses such as car dealerships and liquor stores seeking such exemptions elsewhere, and the Los Angeles Times called the Homeland Security memo "a lawyer's playground: voluminous, difficult to navigate, specific in some places, vague in others."

The S.C. Chamber of Commerce is trying to get ahead of the curve if such an order were to take place here. The Columbia-based pro-business advocacy group sent a letter to McMaster urging a proactive approach that would let businesses apply for an exemption in case a future shelter-in-place order is necessary.

"It's a rapidly changing environment — things change by the hour it seems," said Ted Pitts, the chamber's president and CEO. In addition to the memo's broad guidelines, Pitts said "there needs to be a vetting process through the governor's office or one of the state agencies that has business input" that would let businesses explain why they should be considered essential.

"We want to make sure that as we get deeper into the pandemic's impact on South Carolina that there is a thought-out, measured approach to allowing essential commerce to still exist," Pitts said.

Goose Creek-based JW Aluminum is among the companies seeking to remain in operation if a shelter-in-place order is issued. It makes rolling foil products for the aerospace, automotive and home-building industries and is in the midst of a $300 million expansion.

"After consulting with our lawyers, we believe that any closure or shelter-in-place order should exempt JW Aluminum and its employees because our services and products constitute critical infrastructure functions that the federal government deems 'so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof," JW Aluminum CEO Lee McCarter said in a letter to McMaster.

Century Aluminum in Goose Creek also is seeking "essential" status.

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"Unlike other manufacturing facilities in South Carolina, our smelter cannot be simply turned off without incurring debilitating capital costs — a smelter must operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and once curtailed smelters rarely restart," Jesse Gary, the company's chief operating officer, said in a letter to McMaster. "It is absolutely imperative that our Mount Holly smelter and workers be exempt from any potential mandatory quarantines or shelter-in-place requirements you may issue."

Gary said the smelter's future and the 300 jobs it provides "will be in serious jeopardy" if the plant if forced to close due to the coronavirus.

The South Carolina Brewers Guild, in a letter to McMaster, said the federal memo "specifically identified workers supporting those who sell beverage products, those that support beverage distribution and those who work at beverage production facilities as ones who are deemed essential," and that the state's beverage industry would follow that guidance if a shelter-in-place order is issued.

"This would allow brewery employees (and the entire beverage industry) to continue to work and make sales in the event of a shutdown," the guild said in a tweet.

Boeing Co., which employs roughly 7,000 workers at its North Charleston operations, including a 787 Dreamliner plant, also considers itself as essential business under the federal guidelines although the aerospace giant temporarily shut down its Washington state aircraft factories where a number of workers had been diagnosed with coronavirus.

"Boeing’s work supporting our national defense and transportation infrastructure is deemed critical to our country’s physical and economic security by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security," the company said in a statement. "Because Boeing’s business has been deemed essential, sites remain open while we continuously assess local conditions."

The construction industry is seeking an exemption in both Carolinas, with the Carolina Association of General Contractors calling on McMaster and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper to consider builders an essential service.

"We are concerned about the possibility that state and local government may be considering a possible blanket shutdown of operations without an exemption for personnel that support construction activities," Dave Simpson, the association's president and CEO, said in letters to both governors.

Cooper, like McMaster, has not issued a shelter-in-place order. However, McMaster said Monday that such an order is not off the table.

"That is a drastic action and we all hope that that will not be necessary," he said.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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