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Why SC's coronavirus school, restaurant restrictions will likely extend past March

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Three women make their way to Toast of Charleston on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Restaurants closed dine-in service the next day with the COVID-19 pandemic. Brad Nettles/Staff

COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster's March 31 deadline to reopen school classrooms, allow dine-in restaurant service and permit mass gatherings likely will be extended in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, legislative, education and business leaders expect.

"End of April is more realistic than the beginning of April for a return to normalcy," House Majority Leader Gary Simrill said.

The Rock Hill Republican cited the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce's decision this week to allow businesses hurt by the pandemic's economic impact to file jobless claims on their employees' behalf for up to six weeks of benefits as the reason why he expects restrictions to last into April.

Federal recommendations banning mass gatherings until May and state public colleges' now holding online classes through the spring semester also suggest COVID-19 disruptions will linger.

As of Friday, 125 South Carolinians have tested positive in 25 counties, with the number of cases growing daily. One person has died. 

"I don't think the crisis will be over April 1," said Sherry East, president of the S.C. Education Association, a teachers advocacy group. "If the crisis is not over, they won't put us back in school."

Restaurant industry leaders are working to get dining-in restored — even partially — by next month since it is so important for business. But Bobby Williams, chairman of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, is not hopeful. 

"This has turned into a nightmare," said Williams, who runs the Lizard's Thicket restaurants in Columbia and Florence. "People are scared to death."

Some government leaders think coronavirus problems will persist even longer than expected as events and festivals have been canceled and movie theaters and museums have closed to slow the spread. 

"We're not even half way up the mountain," Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said. "I think it's highly optimistic that were going to be all good in May. This is the very first 50-state disaster we have ever had."

McMaster could change his executive orders on schools, restaurants and mass gatherings of 50 or more people if circumstances change, his office said. But state leaders have no immediate plans to extend the deadlines. 

“We’ll make that decision soon," State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said Thursday. "As of now, it’s March 31. We’re working with our instructors and superintendents daily and making preparations for a longer time.”

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At least two school districts have already altered their schedules after March 31. Charleston County will either extend online classes through April 3 before going on spring break. Anderson Five will not have classes April 1-3 ahead of spring break.

House Education Chairwoman Rita Allison, R-Lyman, said she thinks the state is prepared to handle online teaching for the whole semester.

"Hopefully it will subside so that we can get back in school, but if we don’t they really are doing a fantastic job with e-learning and packets being sent home, teachers FaceTiming with students, and I think the state’s pretty well covered with that kind of thing," she said Thursday.

East said the March 31 school deadline, set by state leaders on Sunday, was just easier than telling South Carolinians that in-person classes were done for the school year.

"I don't think we're ready to hear that," she said.

But they are getting used to it.

South Carolina's four-year public colleges announced Thursday that online classes will continue through the entire semester instead of the end of the month. All but one school postponed May commencement exercises.

The University of South Carolina, the state's largest college, cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance issued this week to halt mass gatherings through May 10 for calling off in-person classes and campus events. 

"The decision was clear. The coronavirus presents a serious risk to public health," USC President Bob Caslen and Interim Provost Tayloe Harding wrote to the campus. "Social distancing is essential to slow the spread of this disease." 

Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.

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