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SC approves large crowds for Darlington race, 31 other events under new coronavirus rules

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NASCAR Darlington Auto Racing (copy) (copy)

Cars race at Darlington Raceway, where operators have received state permission to have 8,000 fans at the 47,000-seat track for the Southern 500 over Labor Day weekend.  File/AP

The Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and more than 30 other large events can go forward under new COVID-19 rules requiring state approval for most gatherings of more than 250 people.

The NASCAR race on Sept. 6 has been approved for 8,000 people, less than 20 percent of its capacity, along with a drag race this Saturday at a nearby venue that is approved for between 1,000-5,000 in attendance, according to S.C. Commerce Department, which approves requests for mass gatherings. 

The approved events for this weekend range from a sidewalk sale along Devine Street in Columbia to a softball tournament in the Upstate to a dinner and tournament at Medieval Times in Myrtle Beach.

Many of the 32 approved events over the next few months are in Myrtle Beach, including shows at the Alabama Theatre and Myrtle Beach Jeep Jam that will have between 5,000-10,000 people on October.

Horry County has been one of the hardest hit by the deadly virus in the state and several governors have warned about travel to South Carolina's largest tourist destination after clusters of visitors were infected.

Six events, including a Charleston County GOP rally on Thursday and a mixed-martial arts tournament in Charleston next month, were rejected, but those events can adjust their applications and reapply, Commerce spokeswoman Alex Clark said. 

As of noon Friday, 74 events had sought approval to welcome more than 250 people, Clark said, with some requests still under consideration.

The reviews are part of Gov. Henry McMaster's executive order that went into effect Monday, which prohibits events with more than 250 participants because of the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Masks are required. Religious events, including weddings and funerals, are exempt from the order. 

But the governor allowed event-holders and theater operators to see exemptions to the cap by submitting plans for safety, including social distancing, to the Commerce Department. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control also works to approve events.

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Another 34 events are awaiting approval, according to data from the Commerce Department. The University of South Carolina, Clemson University and Coastal Carolina University say they have not submitted requests yet to allow more than 250 fans at football games.

Events only are approved if they demonstrate that they can be held safely through social distancing and required use of face coverings, McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said Friday. 

Organizers are informed that there are legal consequences for not abiding by those rules, Symmes said.

The Commerce Department needs to make sure that it is being as prudent as possible in assessing such event applications, said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia. Public safety has to be the paramount concern, he said.

"A lot of this would be easier if the governor would just mandate masks statewide," Rutherford said. South Carolina is one of 16 states without a mandatory mask order.

Seven events have been approved so far for attendance between 1,000-5,000 during August around the state, even as South Carolina remains a coronavirus hotspot.

They include three based around drag racing, including the Apple Chill Festival, a car and bike show set for Sunday in Manning, 65 miles east of Columbia. 

Other events seeking between 1,000-5,000 people that were approved include matches for minor-league soccer team Greenville Triumph, a youth baseball tournament in North Myrtle Beach and the Myrtle Beach Mini Marathon. 

The only events approved for more than 5,000 people so far are the Southern 500 and the Myrtle Beach Jeep Jam. NASCAR ran its first race after suspending the season in May at Darlington with no fans at the 47,000-seat track.

Jessica Holdman, Andy Shain, David Cloninger, Joshua Needelman and Danny Kelly contributed to this report

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