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Some SC cities lift coronavirus restrictions when faced with possible state lawsuits

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An Isle of Palms police cruiser drives down the beach on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson's office issued an opinion on Friday that said only the governor could order people to stay at home during an emergency.

As the day wore on, the opinion's impact would begin to ripple out across the state as local officials considered whether they needed to lift local restrictions and other actions taken earlier in the week. Some cities decided to stay the course, but for at least one municipality the risk of a possible lawsuit from the state was too high. 

Folly Beach City Council met on Friday and rolled back local orders banning beach access, short term rentals and removing a road block on Folly Road, the only way to access the island.

As of Saturday, Folly Beach will be open, fully and without restrictions. 

Mayor Tim Goodwin said he and other city officials felt they voted reluctantly to lift restrictions in order to not face retribution by the state. 

"There was no choice," Goodwin said. "The attorney general's opinion that came out today said ... we don't have the authority to do it (to shut down the city). It’s all about politics."

Had the opinion from South Carolina's top attorney not been issued, the city would have kept restrictions in place, the mayor said. 

Goodwin said he understands people's concerns and continues to urge residents to stay home of their own volition, and for outsiders not to come to the island.  

"I know everyone’s concerned," he said. "Don’t call city council. Call the governor's office." 

Attorney General Alan Wilson's opinion came after councils in the state’s two largest cities, Charleston and Columbia, put so-called stay at home orders in place amid the rising coronavirus pandemic. The orders in Charleston and Columbia instruct residents to stay home in hopes of slowing the spread of the virus, but each have broad exceptions for businesses and other entities deemed “essential” during the crisis.

Gov. Henry McMaster responded to a question at a Friday press conference about the the attorney general’s opinion and whether he believed Columbia and Charleston’s stay-at-home orders were illegal.

“I am concerned and we are working to see that we keep as many people working as we can,” the governor said. “We want to keep as many people safe as we can. We want to keep as many people out of harm’s way as we can. (We) issued orders on congregations or groups of three people or more that law enforcement can disperse. ... We have urged people to keep that social distance.”

In Edisto Beach, town officials also voted to retract access restrictions. The town's parks, playgrounds and facilities will stay closed until further notice, but similarly to Folly Beach, they said they recognized that the opinion from Wilson's office was unambiguous. 

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Edisto Beach town officials continued to urge residents and others to practice social distancing but recognized they could not mandate it. 

But not all municipalities backed down. 

In Sullivan's Island, offiicials said they were staying the course. 

"In light of changes made at Folly Beach and Edisto Island, the public is reminded that access to Sullivan’s Island will remain controlled to residents and those with a current business license between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. until further notice," said Town Administrator Andy Benke.

And in Isle of Palms, city council members voted to "stay the course" with temporary access restrictions and barring new check-ins for short term rentals, hotels and overnight accommodations. 

The council also voted to pass a resolution asking McMaster to issue a mandatory, statewide order requiring all people not performing essential services to stay home. 

City Council voted to stay the course regarding the temporary access restrictions and prohibition on new check-ins for short term rentals, hotels and overnight accommodations and unanimously approved Resolution 2020-01 requesting Governor Henry McMaster to issue a mandatory stay at home order for the State of South Carolina.

Council members said the Lowcountry faces a significant challenge. Although state officials have said they have faith that residents will exercise common sense and follow best practices laid out by public health authorities, such as washing hands and practicing good hygiene, the local picture was far different. 

A significant number of people aren't following common sense, city officials said, adding that it was imperative that the governor act.

A stay at home order from the governor would provide consistency and lay out groundwork for enforceable action to prevent further illness and death, they said. 

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.

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