Governor punts health-related powers to Commerce – again

August 5, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Gov. Henry McMaster has once again granted the S.C. Department of Commerce – which isn’t a public health agency – the power to make health-related decisions in response to the coronavirus outbreak in the state.

Last week, McMaster announced that “gatherings,” defined in his executive order as a “planned or spontaneous indoor or outdoor event that involves or is reasonably expected to involve a large number people physically present,” must be limited to 250 people or 50% of the location’s legal occupancy capacity, whichever is less.

But he left a large loophole in his order, giving Commerce the authority to grant “exceptions” to the crowd-size restrictions.

The order requires a Commerce “team” to “review each request for clarification or an exception,” and provide an answer within 24 hours of receipt of the request. Any determination can be revised “in the sole discretion” of the department “at any point.”

Commerce can consult with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), under McMaster’s order, though all final decisions rest with Commerce. By law, the head of Commerce – currently Bobby Hitt – is appointed by the governor.

McMaster’s order, which was effective Monday, specifically exempts the “normal operations” of private and public schools and colleges, as well as “religious activities or services,” from crowd-size limits.

McMaster in March ordered the temporary closure of what he deemed as “non-essential” businesses and activities – including spectator sports – and gave Commerce the authority to determine whether inquiring businesses were on the “non-essential” list.

But as The Nerve reported then, McMaster didn’t specify public health criteria to be used by Commerce in making those determinations, and that the agency’s seven-person review team had no public health or medical experts.

The Governor’s Office didn’t respond to a written request from The Nerve seeking comment on the latest executive order. Commerce also didn’t initially reply to written questions; The Nerve last week submitted a state Freedom of Information Act request to the agency asking for, among other things, records on who has requested crowd-size exemptions.

University of South Carolina athletics spokesman Charles Bloom told The Nerve on Tuesday that the university plans to seek an exemption from Commerce to “host large crowds” at the Williams-Brice football stadium, which can seat 80,250, though he didn’t provide specifics. The Southeastern Conference (SEC) last week announced that a 10-game, conference-only schedule is set to begin Sept. 26.

Clemson University spokesman Joe Galbraith in an email response Tuesday said to his knowledge, Commerce hasn’t granted an exemption to allow large crowds at football games at Memorial Stadium, which can seat 81,500, though he couldn’t immediately say whether the university applied for an exemption. Clemson’s first game in its revised 11-game schedule is planned for the week of Sept. 7.

The Nerve also sought comment from officials with the Darlington Raceway, where NASCAR’s annual Southern 500 is set to run on Sept. 6, but didn’t receive a response. A NASCAR source said Tuesday raceway officials were “working very closely” with S.C. officials to determine whether fans will be allowed at the 47,000-seat racetrack for the September event.

Fans were not allowed at the track for the Real Heroes 400 NASCAR race in May.

On July 1, McMaster at a press conference warned that college and high school football would be canceled if COVID-19 cases statewide continued to rise, according to media reports.

As of the week that ended July 4, the state had recorded 895 coronavirus deaths, DHEC records show. That number stood at 1,847 as of late Tuesday afternoon – a 106% jump from a month ago. Reported cases nearly doubled over the same period to 94,190.

In his latest order, McMaster said Commerce can make exemptions to crowd-size limits if event organizers “take reasonable steps” to comply with social distancing, sanitation and hygiene guidelines by DHEC, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or “any other state or federal public health officials.”

His order also generally requires face coverings for everyone working at or attending events, and bans the sale or consumption of alcohol between 11 p.m. and 10 a.m. the following day.

DHEC on its website defines social distancing as “staying home as much as possible, staying at least 6 feet away from other people while in public, and avoiding gatherings with many people present.” CDC guidelines for attending events call for, among other things:

  • Seating should be at least 6 feet apart from those who don’t live in the same household;
  • Avoiding bathroom and concession areas at “high traffic times, such as intermission, half-time, or immediately at the end of the event”;
  • Using “cashless payment options when possible,” or if not available, exchanging cash or cards in a “receipt tray, if available, or on the counter”;
  • Wearing masks in settings “where individuals might raise their voices, such as shouting, chanting, or singing.”

In a written response Tuesday to The Nerve about allowing fans at University of South Carolina football games, spokesman Bloom said university officials are “currently working through the social distancing plan, including seating, restrooms and concessions, entry and exit, concourses and other areas, that we are required to submit” to Commerce, though he didn’t provide specifics.

“Developing these plans is comprehensive and time-consuming and done with the best interest of the health and safety of fans that would have access for games in the stadium,” he said.

Bloom didn’t immediately respond to follow-up questions about when the university’s plan would be submitted to Commerce, or if any fans should be allowed to attend college football games given DHEC’s social-distancing guidelines and the current live-attendance bans by various professional sport leagues.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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