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Why South Carolinians are flocking to beaches, bars and shops as coronavirus cases soar

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Visitors flock to the beach on Memorial Day weekend Saturday, May 23, 2020, on the Isle of Palms. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

South Carolinians have returned in droves to beaches, restaurants, parks and shops over the past two weeks, in many cases disregarding public health guidance even as daily COVID-19 case numbers soar to new heights.

State public health officials and Gov. Henry McMaster have expressed concern about poor mask usage in South Carolina and large gatherings, especially over Memorial Day weekend, that skirted social distancing guidelines.

But psychologists at South Carolina’s top colleges and research universities aren’t surprised that health recommendations haven’t been universally adopted.

They see a host of possible factors — some rooted in psychological terms such as “compassion fatigue” and “confirmation bias” — behind the state’s sometimes confusing attempt to return to normalcy.

First and foremost, they say, is a sense of security and optimism that followed the lifting of South Carolina’s stay-at-home order and other restrictions on public life last month. The state replaced those legal restrictions with a public information campaign encouraging residents to stay home, continue social distancing, wash their hands and wear masks in public.

That messaging — including videos from S.C. celebrities like talk show host Stephen Colbert and singer Darius Rucker — has been productive and must continue, but it isn’t foolproof, experts say.

“A lot of people have assumed the restrictions going away means everything is safe,” said College of Charleston social psychologist Lisa Ross. “People are letting their guards down because restrictions and recommendations are definitely not the same thing in our minds.”

The evidence is everywhere, at long lines outside bars, packed restaurants, even a Memorial Day rally that drew hundreds of boats to the Charleston Harbor. Recent protests in downtown Charleston and at the S.C. Statehouse in Columbia have drawn hundreds of people into close proximity, some shaking or holding hands — even if most covered their faces with masks or bandanas.

“I’m concerned about every type of activity that I see like that,” state epidemiologist Linda Bell told The Post and Courier this week. “I saw the videos of beachgoers. When we investigate in communities, we learn of private parties of 100 to 150 people who are gathering. All of these types of gatherings are a risk.”

But many South Carolinians see it as a risk worth taking. That’s in part because people are tired of being cooped up at home as the weather warms and children are out of school with nothing to keep them busy, experts say.

People also want to support local businesses and see their friends. Many were eager to see restrictions lifted even before McMaster pulled the stay-at-home order on May 4. Some conservatives complained the economy should have never been shuttered in the first place.

“In this country, people react negatively to having perceived freedoms taken away from them, which is a fundamental psychological principle,” said Clemson University psychology professor Robert Sinclair. “We want control in our lives. When control is taken away from us, it’s very stressful.”

Disagreements about the severity of the coronavirus threat also have provided room for some South Carolinians to dismiss the pandemic altogether, said University of South Carolina psychologist Doug Wedell.

People are hearing mixed messages about the respiratory disease’s prevalence and how to interpret the state’s daily COVID-19 case numbers, Wedell said. Confirmed cases soared to an average of around 320 per day last week — more than double the daily case numbers from early May.

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But McMaster said that he has no plans to bring back restrictions that would further damage the economy. Still, he warned compliance with safety rules "may be dropping off some now" and asked South Carolinians to use common sense to stop the fatal virus' spread.

"If everyone followed the practices, we would be in better shape than we are now," the governor said on Thursday. "I think we've all been making the point over and over again that the virus is still here. It's still just as dangerous as it was before. ... I just got to say, 'People, you need to be careful.'" 

When people hear different narratives about the same issue, they tend to believe the one that already fits their worldview, said Wedell, who studies the psychology of decision-making. They then seek out facts or news sources that feed into that narrative as part of a phenomenon called confirmation bias. It’s why liberals get their news from MSNBC and conservatives tune to Fox News.

That means it's easy for people who already believe the pandemic is overblown to note that only a small fraction of the people who contract the disease become seriously ill, or to shrug off the growing number of positive cases as only a byproduct of South Carolina's expanded testing.

“We sort of want to make things the way we believe they should be,” said Wedell, the interim chairman of USC’s psychology department. “We’re biased by our hopes and aspirations.”

Ross, the College of Charleston professor, also attributed the large crowds to “compassion fatigue.”

People were initially willing to stay home and sacrifice for the common good. But those feelings of goodwill wore off after a few weeks of constantly hearing about the virus and seeing the daily drip of new case numbers, Ross said. Their sense of unity also disintegrated as divisions emerged about the shutdown of the economy and the virus’ dangers, she said.

Ross said the phenomenon is similar to the months after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks, when Americans were united with patriotism. Eventually that wore off, and Americans again felt comfortable criticizing the government and then-President George W. Bush.

“At some point, it’s not uncommon to feel exhausted for caring about something,” Ross said.

Experts said DHEC is taking the right steps to encourage social distancing and mask usage, even if it isn’t working perfectly just yet. Such habits can take years to form, especially when the guidance is somewhat uncomfortable to follow, Wedell said.

Wedell recalled widespread opposition to seat belt requirements, even after South Carolina passed a law in 2005 that led to more ticketing for not buckling up. It took a yearslong public campaign with billboards and TV ads before wearing a seat belt became a widespread habit, Wedell said.

DHEC has a similar challenge in trying to discourage Southerners from socializing, Wedell said. “We’re battling habitual behavior.”

Andy Shain contributed to this report.

Reach Avery Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks.

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Avery G. Wilks is an investigative reporter based in Columbia. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the S.C. Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and is a 2015 graduate of the University of South Carolina’s Honors College.

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