South Carolina is removing some of the state's last COVID-19 restrictions as Gov. Henry McMaster lifted mandatory limits on mass gatherings and late-night restaurant alcohol sales, effective March 1.
Large gatherings — including sporting events, concerts and festivals — no longer need state approval to make sure they are complying with safety protocols. Still, McMaster asked organizers to limit attendance to 50 percent capacity and call for face coverings.
The announcements comes as COVID-19 cases drop across the country and more people receiving vaccines. But South Carolina topped the country in positive test rate and was second in new cases per 100,000 people in the past week, according to the latest White House data.
Limitations on nursing home visits remains the only major COVID-19 restriction left in the state.
“The virus is still among us and we all must continue to make responsible decisions to take care of ourselves and our loved ones, but those decisions are for South Carolinians to make,” McMaster said in announcing the new orders Feb. 26.
The latest change means mass gatherings of 250 people or more will no longer require approval from the state’s Department of Commerce. Organizers also will no longer be subject to any penalties for violating safety rules.
McMaster has confidence organizers and businesses will follow his suggestions on attendance limits to avoid further spread of the virus, said Brian Symmes, the governor's spokesman.
South Carolina's move comes two days after North Carolina eased attendance limits on event.
Asked about the governor's order, Dr. Linda Bell, chief epidemiologist at the S.C. Department of Environmental Control, encouraged the public to stick with prevention measures.
"We want people to be able to patronize businesses to participate in social activities and what-not," Bell said. "And what we've said all along is that there are safe ways to do certain activities, as long as people practice those prevention measures."
Bars and restaurants will again be allowed to serve drinks after 11 p.m., ending a statewide alcohol sales curfew reviled by business owners and opposed by some epidemiologists.
McMaster said he decided to lift the orders because the “targeted and limited safety measures are no longer necessary.”
S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association chair Bobby Williams said the two announcements in tandem should help bring groups back to South Carolina for meetings and other events.
"It’s very good news. We feel like we’re getting back to normalcy," Williams said.
Many hope that normalcy will come quickly. The state already has several large-scale tourism-generating events on the calendar for the spring, including the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in May, which announced a plan Feb. 23 to allow 10,000 spectators per day — about a third of the number it hosted there in 2012.
The University of South Carolina does not anticipate any changes to spring sports events and made no call on fall sports, including football.
"The Athletics Department will continue to review these new recommendations to determine its future plans for the safety of all of its constituents," USC sports information director Steve Fink said.
State tourism director Duane Parrish said he thinks that pattern will continue: More in-person events with hundreds or even thousands of people will be held, but there will be still be attendance limits or other COVID-19 protocols in place.
"So it's not a free-for-all by any means, but it's a big improvement over 2020 and it certainly will help boost us," he said.
"I do believe tourism will start to catch up to 2019 numbers as we go through the late spring and early summer."
While business travel is expected to have a slower recovery than leisure travel, Parrish said lifting the 250-person cap should be an assuring sign for groups thinking about planning meetings or conferences.
"I think you'll see more corporations and associations start to book meetings, particularly for the fall," Parrish said.
When McMaster originally ordered the alcohol cutoff last year after rolling back seating restrictions in restaurants, it was meant to control the spread of COVID-19 by young people known to crowd into bars around the state.
But bar owners were immediately concerned about the nightly loss of three profitable hours.
“We obviously didn’t sign a lease for 10,000 feet on King Street in hopes of doing decent daytime business,” Uptown Social’s Keith Benjamin told The Post and Courier when the curfew went into effect in July.
Across South Carolina, bar owners hailed the curfew lift announcement as crucial to their financial recovery.
Under the early last call “we’re not really able to operate in a way that we can pay our bills,” said Mike Whiteley, co-owner of Dalila’s on Spring, which opens at 7 p.m.
Prior to the pandemic, the downtown Charleston cocktail bar catered largely to restaurant workers who didn’t clock out until around midnight.
“We kind of established ourselves as a late-night spot for the F&B crowd,” Whiteley said. “They don’t want to be with college kids; they want to be calm and relaxed. They just want a drink and a sandwich. We’ve completely lost that whole group of people.”
During the week, Dalila’s sometimes doesn’t see a drinker until 10 p.m. Whiteley said that on the night of Feb. 24, he had 15 customers there, but with curfew looming he had to ask all of them to leave.
Williams said it will be good for hospitality workers' mental health to have an opportunity to gather at places like Dalila's again.
"Personally, I’m very seldom out at night, but this is good for the industry, because restaurant employees have had no place to go," he said. "Everyone likes to let their hair down a little bit after a busy night. And they’re all good tippers, too."
The governor's announcement came months after McMaster lifted capacity restrictions on bars and restaurants. As a result, after owners of upscale bars like Whiteley’s closed for the evening, they would often walk past lively nightclubs packed with hundreds of paying people.
In a rare instance of public health experts and business champions finding common ground during the pandemic, scientists were equally frustrated by the scenario.
“Maybe it sounds like you’re addressing the problem but, in reality, you’re doing little to help anyone out,” Dr. Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said of time-based interventions.
Head noted that the coronavirus doesn’t heed the clock, but drinkers forced out on the street could conceivably congregate at a corner store or unregulated house party.
There is no way to know whether the curfew ultimately hastened or slowed the spread of COVID-19 in South Carolina, but the risk of infection in Charleston County is still considered extremely high.
The state reported another 1,086 new cases on Feb. 26, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in South Carolina since the pandemic’s start to 441,697. More than 7,500 South Carolinians have died.
With South Carolina dropping its curfew, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Pennsylvania are the only states cutting off alcohol sales at 11 p.m.
Virginia is still operating under a 10 p.m. alcohol curfew, but it’s set to extend its curfew to midnight on March 1.
Hanna Raskin reported from Charleston and Andy Shain from Columbia. Mary Katherine Wildeman and Emily Williams contributed from Charleston and David Cloninger from Columbia.