NORTH CHARLESTON — A cheerleading competition scheduled to bring dozens of teams indoors at the Charleston Area Convention Center has raised some concerns about possibly aiding the spread of the coronavirus.
This comes as the S.C. Department of Commerce continues to approve most requests to host mass gatherings across the state, such as the Cheersport Charleston Grand Championship competition. It also comes as the state announced on Friday 2,470 new cases of COVID-19, a new single-day record.
More than 50 cheerleading teams from South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia are scheduled to convene Dec. 13 for the Cheersport competition hosted by Varsity Spirit, a Tennessee-based competitive cheerleading and dance promotion company.
But at least one Charleston area medical professional, outspoken on the need for safe and healthy practices among Lowcountry residents, said the event is problematic as infections continue to climb.
"The cheerleading competition has the potential to be a superspreader event," said Dr. Michael G. Schmidt, an epidemiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina. "The teams will likely be using their 'outside voices' and, even if masked, we won’t know how far the virus may spread from the team during their cheering competition."
The North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center applied for and received a blanket approval in September from the state Commerce Department to host gatherings of more than 250 people at its facilities.
Because the venue received a blanket approval, the cheerleading company is not required to submit a separate application, said Commerce spokeswoman Alex Clark.
The North Charleston complex has several other events scheduled, including a handful of hockey games at the Coliseum throughout December.
The Convention Center's current occupancy limit is 50 percent of the total capacity or capacity based on social distancing — whichever is fewer.
The 50 percent cap for the Convention Center, where the cheer event will take place, is 7,700 people, said Frank Lapsey, the facility's general manager. The center will factor in competition stages, booths, tables and other non-useable space, and then recalculate how many people can be safely accommodated, he said.
Varsity Spirit did not respond to a request inquiring about the number of people expected to attend.
"If needed, they will have them break sessions into smaller successive sessions to keep the numbers within the manageable range," North Charleston city spokesman Ryan Johnson said. "Also, if needed, the room will be cleared after each session to control the numbers."
This event is one of about 1,000 mass gatherings approved in the past several months by South Carolina, one of the first states to reopen its economy months ago.
The Commerce Department has approved 90 percent of requests for large assemblies, including sporting events, festivals and concerts.
Seventy-five requests have been rejected, often for not adhering to proper safety guidelines. Among the rejects were a mixed martial arts fight that sought to take place at the Performing Arts Center in September. The request was denied because organizers hoped to exceed the 50 percent capacity limit.
Though the Commerce Department works closely with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control on approving large events, the agency focused on growing the state's business community ultimately has the final say.
When asked why the department is making the decision, and not a health agency, Gov. Henry McMaster's spokesman said the Commerce Department had the infrastructure already in place to take on the challenge because of its previous work responding to the pandemic.
Safety is a top priority, "but the health and well-being of South Carolina’s businesses must also be considered when making these decisions, and the Department of Commerce has the expertise to make those considerations," McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said.
When filing a request, applicants promise to adhere to safety protocols that include mask-wearing, social distancing and sanitizing venues. But the commerce department doesn't do any follow-up work to ensure these rules are followed.
For the cheer competition, security will be stationed at all event entrances to ensure guests are wearing masks, according to health measures posted on Varsity's website. Cheerleaders are not required to wear masks while performing, the organization said.
Even with safety measures, the very nature of the event makes it an issue, said Schmidt, the MUSC epidemiologist. This is partly due to the sporting competition occurring weeks after family bubbles expanded at Thanksgiving, which increases the likelihood of a contagious spectator or competitor, the medical professional said.
He said one option is to have one parent set up a cellphone camera that could stream the event as other parents watch it on their phones from their cars.
He recommended organizers sanitize the mats after each competition, have the ventilation cranked up to exhaust the air to the outside, and that teams all follow state health guidance of masks, hand hygiene and physical distancing when not competing.