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SC has looser restrictions on gatherings, restaurants, nursing homes than last COVID spike

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Dr. Linda Bell (copy)

Dr. Linda Bell, the state's chief epidemiologist, (right) and Gov. Henry McMaster respond to reporters' questions Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, about the rising COVID-19 case numbers. Seanna Adcox/Staff

Not since the summer has South Carolina reached new highs in COVID-19 cases as the new daily and seven-day average records set last week.

But unlike the summer, South Carolina has fewer restrictions.

The state allows large gatherings, with more than 300 events planned this month that could draw hundreds of thousands to parades, ball games and holiday events. 

Nursing homes can have visitors, with more than 150 of them allowing indoor visits.

And restaurants can go to full capacity, with no restrictions on seating distance. 

Yes, there are caveats.

Gatherings of 250 people or more require state approval, though no one checks if organizers are following through with promised safety measures.

No indoor visits are allowed at nursing homes if a staffer tested positive for COVID-19 in the previous two weeks.

Restaurant patrons and workers must war masks and booze sales must stop by 11 p.m.

South Carolina has come a long way from a stay-at-home order and a ban on nonessential businesses after the outbreak began in the spring.

But cases are rising as cooler temperatures push more South Carolinians indoors and more people are visiting family and friends for the holidays. Daily cases broke the 3,000 mark for the first time ever just two weeks after Thanksgiving.

State epidemiologist Linda Bell, who acknowledged last week that "We're not near the end of this," said the number of S.C. counties with falling case data has gone from 35 to six in little over a month.

She added the state could prevent 1,000 of the 3,000 estimated COVID-19 deaths to arise by April if 95 percent of South Carolinians were using masks.

South Carolina remains one of 15 states without a mask law, though nine counties and 55 cities and towns require face coverings.

"There is significant control that we have over what we're seeing," Bell said during a COVID briefing with Gov. Henry McMaster. "And this public health (crisis) is not about politics. The virus doesn't do its harm or doesn't spare people based on your political beliefs. We have to follow the scientific evidence in making decisions about what we're going to do."

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McMaster, a former U.S. attorney and state attorney general, said at the briefing that he won't reimpose restrictions based on economics and his interpretation of the law. He again emphasized South Carolinians should take personal responsibility for following safety measures that will slow the coronavirus. 

The governor mentioned other states with more COVID restrictions having higher unemployment rates, saying they have wrecked economies, businesses and families.

South Carolina had the nation's seventh lowest jobless rate in October, just ahead of Georgia.

New York and California, a target of McMaster's in the past, ranked among the top five highest. 

"I believe that we're doing ours the best way," McMaster said last week. "We're not going to shut down South Carolina."

Then there is his legal argument. 

"When you close down a business, then you are potentially killing that business or taking that property away from that individual and there's a constitutional question involved," he said. That was a chief concern why McMaster was reluctant to issue a stay-at-home order in the spring.

Plus, he pushed to reopen nursing homes, despite accounting for one in three of the state's COVID-19 deaths, so that people can check on loved ones. 

Add all that together and don't expect any new restrictions soon.

Still, calls for caution are growing.

Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto wrote to McMaster last week requesting he order a 90-day statewide mask mandate, something the governor has said is not enforceable.

"Wearing a mask is not a political statement, no more so than wearing a seat belt," the Orangeburg Democrat wrote. "We mandate the wearing of a seatbelt even though we know we do not have the personnel to ensure 100 percent compliance."

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who leads a city that has enacted a mask rule since the summer, said McMaster has the power to curb activity that spreads the virus like he did in issuing a stay-at-home order.

"The question is whether or not he has the will," Benjamin said.

McMaster has his reasons, for sure. And he will be watching for additional confirmation when new state jobless figures come out Friday and he can see how well South Carolina's economy performs.

Follow Andy Shain on Facebook (andyshain12) and Twitter (@andyshain)

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