With COVID-19 cases rising and straining local hospitals, the city of Charleston moved to a heightened level of pandemic response Monday that further restricts public gatherings and access to city offices.
The city's Phase 2 rules will mean no permits for gatherings in city parks, such as weddings. Meetings with city staff will be by appointment only, and special events will not be permitted.
“Everyone who can work from home, we’ll be asking them to work from home," Mayor John Tecklenburg said in reference to city employees during an outdoor press conference behind City Hall.
Leading indicators of the pandemic are "all heading in the wrong direction," he said.
The city's tighter protocols don't change any rules for businesses, but Tecklenburg urged businesses and residents to voluntarily step up efforts to be safe and keep the pandemic from getting worse by wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings.
Charleston has not been a pandemic hot spot in South Carolina, but cases have been rising significantly since October. Last week, a federal report listed the Greenville metropolitan area as having the worst outbreak in the nation among areas with populations of 250,000 to 1 million; Florence was among the worst for areas with fewer than 250,000.
“Charleston has been incredibly good since last summer when we had that peak, in implementing protective measures," said Medical University of South Carolina Health CEO Dr. Patrick Cawley. "Because of that we have not seen the surge that other parts of South Carolina have seen."
Statewide, South Carolina is now among the five hardest-hit states in terms of new cases per person, The New York Times reported Monday.
Cawley and Dr. Jeffrey DiLisi, president and CEO of Roper St. Francis Healthcare, urged area residents to get vaccinated as soon as they are able. Starting Wednesday, state residents 70 or older can begin scheduling appointments to get the COVID-19 vaccine, the governor announced Monday.
Depending on how long it lasts, Charleston's prohibition on special events could have an impact on hotels and restaurants, and that could further strain the city's revenue tied to hotes, restaurants and parking garages.
Prior to the change in city rules Monday, several special events were canceled or, like the Charleston Marathon, went virtual. According to city officials, there are no special events that will be immediately canceled due to the change in rules.
The Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, traditionally the first major tourist event of the year in Charleston, was scheduled for Feb. 11-14 with plans to limit attendance. Instead, the nonprofit group canceled the event during the first week of January.
The Cooper River Bridge Run, which has a reported $30 million economic impact, usually attracts about 40,000 people and was canceled in 2020. This year it was scheduled for March 27, then rescheduled for Sept. 25.
The city's change of phases does not impact the Volvo Car Open, a tennis tournament scheduled April 3-11 on Daniel Island. The city-owned facility is leased, and the Phase 2 rules don't apply to leased facilities. However, the Volvo Car Open previously announced a "pause" in ticket sales for the April event.
"Since we cannot accurately predict, at this time, how many fans may be allowed to join us in April, we have decided to pause ticket sales to the Volvo Car Open until further notice," reads an undated statement on the event's ticket sales website.
If the Phase 2 rules continue, they could prevent the Charleston Farmers Market from opening in mid-March as planned.
The unanswerable question is: How long will the restrictions last?
Because South Carolina has left it to towns and cities to set most pandemic-related rules, residents will continue to see very different responses in different areas.
Across the river from Charleston, Mount Pleasant's less-stringent regulations are due to expire on Thursday, and as of Monday there was no announced plan to extend them.