MYRTLE BEACH — Before the first youth baseball and softball tournaments could return to the Grand Park Athletic Complex this summer after the COVID-19 layoff, the organizers of Baseball Youth’s “All American Games” had to pledge to state officials they would require attendees to social distance and wear masks.
But the Aug. 14 event ultimately followed almost none of the state’s coronavirus protocols. The park’s bleachers and concourses were filled with maskless parents while kids played on jungle gyms. Bathroom lines became thick and disorderly as the park’s security guards reclined in their chairs, paying little attention.
Other state-sanctioned events in Horry County followed a similar pattern. In Conway, many of the 5,000 students and fans at Coastal Carolina University’s first home football game failed to wear masks or distance themselves in front of ESPN cameras that broadcast the game to a national audience.
And this month, North Myrtle Beach city officials are dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak after Duck's Beach Club hosted a multi-day shag dancing celebration that drew scores of seniors, some of whom have since fallen ill with the deadly respiratory disease.
Those are just three of the more than 800 mass gatherings that have been approved by state officials over the past three months as South Carolina became one of the first states to reopen its economy and relaxed restrictions on restaurants, concert halls, stadiums, race tracks and other event venues. More than one in six of those events has been held in Horry County, a popular hub for the state's lucrative $24 billion a year tourist industry.
To get permission from the state Commerce Department for a gathering of more than 250 people, these festivals, parades, concerts and tournaments need only fill out an online form pledging to follow public health protocols such as enforcing social distancing, requiring masks and adequately sanitizing their venues.
But after approving the events, the Commerce Department, the state's main economic recruiter, doesn’t follow up to ensure those protocols are followed — even as evidence mounts that some organizers aren’t living up to their promises.
And policing of mass gatherings by local law enforcement has been inconsistent, even as images of large, maskless crowds go viral on social media.
Critics say this is the result of state government leaders, notably Gov. Henry McMaster, struggling to balance economic concerns with public health warnings that mass gatherings increase chances for spreading COVID-19.
“We’re doing everything the wrong way,” state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, said of the crowds. “The problem is that people want to get back to normal. All this is going to do is delay that.”
McMaster, meanwhile, has said he won't reinstate COVID-19 restrictions that hamstrung the state's economy, adding it is up to South Carolinians to practice personal responsibility to stop the virus' spread.
Refusal to close down SC
The coronavirus has been with South Carolina since March, infecting more than 160,000 residents and killing more than 3,500.
Medical professionals have cautioned for months that large gatherings, especially those held indoors, can become so-called “superspreader events” in which a few infected people unknowingly transmit the deadly respiratory disease to dozens more through the routine acts of speaking and breathing. Choir practices, parties and even work meetings have been identified as superspreading events that bolstered the virus’ spread.
That’s why McMaster continued to bar large gatherings even as South Carolina became one of the first states to reopen its economy after lockdowns this spring.
But the Columbia Republican loosened those restraints in early August, allowing events with more than 250 attendees to go forward as long as they received the permission of the Commerce Department. At the same time, the governor authorized state and local law enforcement to break up gatherings that pose a public health threat.
“We are not going to close down South Carolina,” the governor said at the time, stressing the need to revive the state’s economy.
Organizers have had a breezy time getting permission from the state to host large events.
The Commerce Department has approved more than 92 percent of their applications, giving the green light to a smorgasbord of Thanksgiving celebrations, Christmas tree lightings, races and sports tournaments, records show.
The agency blessed having thousands of fans at sporting events such as a NASCAR race in Darlington and major college football games at the University of South Carolina and Clemson University.
Church services and a pair of weddings in Chester and York counties were approved on the grounds that religious events are exempt from McMaster’s restrictions.
The agency received more than 200 applications for events that planned to draw at least 1,000 attendees. And at least 20 events expected crowds of more than 5,000.
But those applications are where the state’s scrutiny ends. The Commerce Department does not follow up with organizers to ensure they follow through on those promises, leaving that job to law enforcement agencies who are often reluctant to police public health.
“We wouldn’t be able to address that,” Commerce spokeswoman Alex Clark told The Post and Courier last week. “Our role ... is to review the applications.”
Just more than 60 events have been denied, including an outdoor concert at a Blythewood park that didn’t provide enough space for social distancing and a drag race in Union County that wouldn’t require attendees to wear masks.
Some of the applicants that were initially rejected, including the Shaggin' on Main event in North Myrtle Beach, revised their applications and then received Commerce’s approval.
Plenty of those larger events have gone off without a hitch, including in Horry County, which has hosted more mass gatherings than any other S.C. county.
At a September Pirates Voyage show in Horry County, guests were asked whether they were experiencing COVID-like symptoms and had their temperatures scanned before they could enter the show. Once inside the theater, even the performers wore masks as they swung from the rooftops.
But not everyone has been so diligent.
The Shaggin’ on Main event at Duck's Beach Club drew scores of people, many of them seniors, an age group with an elevated risk of falling seriously ill with COVID-19. Attendees can be seen in public Facebook posts dancing and drinking inside the venue while bands played on stage. Diners sat outside in large, crowded groups.
Few people were wearing masks in photographs and videos from the events. In the weeks since the event, more than a dozen attendees — part of the area's tight-knit shagging community — have fallen ill with COVID-19, and at least one has died from the disease. Still, state health officials have said it is impossible to conclude they contracted the virus at Shaggin’ on Main.
“I’m not shocked this happened, but it’s heartbreaking,” said Lisa Lang, a former Duck's employee.
Lang said she quit her job working Duck's front door this summer because she didn’t think returning to work amid a pandemic was safe. Since COVID-19 preys on the sick and elderly, she worried about how an outbreak would affect the bar’s regulars, who are mostly seniors.
“Some of these people have been in the hospital or died,” Lang said. “Maybe if everyone stayed in this year, they could come back next year in better health. It doesn’t make sense people aren’t taking it seriously.”
Multiple efforts to reach the owners of Duck's for comment were unsuccessful last week. On Oct. 9, the venue posted on Facebook it would temporarily close, and it hasn’t posted since. Duck's final update attracted more than 100 Facebook comments from people trying to learn more about the potential outbreak.
In October alone, Horry County’s average daily case count has nearly tripled month over month, to more than 61 per day. Some residents wonder if the event is contributing to the rising numbers.
“As we’ve learned from the past three weeks, this can happen to any community,” said North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley. “We had the fewest cases on the Grand Strand and then this happened. You just never know. I urge our citizens to follow the guidelines.”
Commerce Department officials have known for months that organizers don’t always keep their promises to follow health guidance.
In emails obtained by The Post and Courier through a Freedom of Information Act request, they noted several instances where venues weren’t truthful about their plans as they requested permission to hold events.
In one April 27 email, Commerce Deputy Director of Business Services Chantal Fryer wrote the agency had allowed some speedways to reopen for track testing after organizers said they would bar spectators, limit the number of pit crew members and enforce social distancing.
“However, some raceways aren’t doing what they told us on the form and (are) holding races,” Fryer wrote.
Of course, state-approved events aren’t the only large gatherings that have flouted public health guidelines.
The Myrtle Beach Speedway didn’t even apply for Commerce’s permission before drawing a crowd of more than 3,000 for its final race in August. The speedway was issued a warning by the State Law Enforcement Division for violating McMaster’s executive order, a wrist-slap of little consequence since the speedway will soon be converted into a housing development.
Bars, which no longer need the Commerce's permission to reopen, have attracted huge crowds as well.
In the state capital of Columbia, thick lines of maskless University of South Carolina students outside packed bars have left city officials wondering what more they can do to encourage better habits. Most believe their hands are tied after the governor lifted occupancy restrictions on bars and restaurants earlier this month.
The governor’s executive orders authorize police to shut down gatherings that pose a public health hazard. But officers aren’t always keen to act.
Earlier this month, Columbia police officers were on the scene at Pavlov’s as the Five Points dive bar hosted a crowd large enough to make an epidemiologist cringe. But they took no action to shut it down, an “oversight” that Columbia police spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said would not be repeated.
Other times, local responders have stepped in.
On Oct. 17, the Columbia Fire Department broke up a close-quarters party of more than 2,000 celebrating outside an apartment complex near USC’s football stadium after the Gamecocks defeated No. 15 Auburn.
By early September, SLED had ticketed at least 11 businesses, including a Greenville nightclub and a Murrells Inlet bar that hosted hundreds of unmasked bikers for a rally this summer, and issued warnings to more than 150 for violating coronavirus restrictions this year.
Police have largely preferred to disperse large crowds and warn organizers, saving arrests and fines for repeat offenders.
“We haven’t enforced our way out of the pandemic,” said Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs' Association. “We haven’t all of a sudden reversed the spike because we’ve been out there writing tickets. It’s more about education and reminders to socially distance.”
But political leaders have called for harsher fines, and even business shutdowns, as a way to send a message that South Carolina is serious about tackling the virus and protecting the vulnerable.
Harpootlian, the Columbia state senator, has called on the state’s public health agency to use its emergency powers to do just that. But the Department of Health and Environmental Control has said it prefers to leave that enforcement with local police.
Harpootlian said that’s not good enough. He said other states have taken stronger action, recalling how New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this month banned a Brooklyn wedding that was set to draw 10,000 guests.
“I’m an old prosecutor,” Harpootlian said. “We believe that part of the reason that you punish people is that it’s a deterrent to other people.”
Jay Rodriguez, Hannah Strong, Danny Kelly and Nick Masuda contributed to this report.