McMaster’s ‘non-essential’ list: A hole-in-one for SC golfers – and others

April 7, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Last Tuesday, Gov. Henry McMaster ordered that “non-essential” businesses statewide be closed to the public to combat the spread of the coronavirus, though he included some pretty big loopholes.

Take golfing, for example.

His “non-essential” list includes various “recreational and athletic facilities,” such as fitness centers, though sports that “involve interaction” of greater than 6 feet between players or activities that don’t “require the use of shared sporting apparatus and equipment” would be allowed.

That exemption would cover golf, whether played on public or private courses, as long as “social distancing” requirements were met. As of Sunday, golfing was allowed for members of the private Forest Lake Club near Columbia, though not guests, according to a worker there. McMaster had been a longtime member of the country club when he became governor in 2017, according to media reports then.

McMaster’s “non-essential” business list, which was kept in his statewide stay-at-home order issued late Monday afternoon, raises questions about whether public health considerations are the primary factor in deciding which businesses are included on the list.

Under his latest emergency orders, the state Department of Commerce decides the winners and losers when businesses are seeking guidance from the agency about whether they are classified as “essential” or “non-essential.”

Although his latest orders don’t specify “essential” businesses, by default it would include many types of businesses not on the “non-essential” list. For example, major retailer Walmart, which sells groceries and medications among other things, would be considered “essential,” as would a variety of smaller businesses ranging from law firms to landscapers.

And why some recreational activities are considered more of a public health threat than others isn’t explained in the orders, leaving those decisions open to interpretation at the local level.

For example, five days before the statewide “non-essential” list was first issued, the city of Myrtle Beach ordered that golf courses be closed. But the tourist mecca amended its emergency order the next day to only ban “non-local play” at golf courses and kept that provision in its latest order issued Friday.

Asked by The Nerve why the city allows local residents to continue golfing, city spokesman Mark Kruea in a written statement Friday replied: “All of the health advice says that fresh air and sunshine (the great outdoors) are good for you in the current circumstances, as long as you abide by the social distancing requirements. A golf course is a much more wide-open environment than a grocery store or a drug store or any other enclosed space where people are allowed to be (again, assuming they observe social distancing requirements).”

Kruea continued: “A golf course is not crowded. … Golf, unlike other sports where people physically compete against each other and/or share equipment (tennis balls or volleyball, for example), is an individual sport with very little interpersonal contact normally.”

Yet as of Monday, tennis was allowed at the Forest Lake Club near Columbia, according to a worker there.

Kruea didn’t respond to The Nerve’s follow-up question about why non-residents were banned temporarily from playing on golf courses in Myrtle Beach.

The Governor’s Office also didn’t respond to The Nerve’s written questions about the loopholes in McMaster’s emergency orders or about his Forest Lake Club membership. Asked Monday whether McMaster was still a member, a man identified by a receptionist as the club manager told The Nerve by phone he was “in the middle of a webinar” and couldn’t discuss the matter.

Besides “recreational and athletic facilities,” McMaster’s latest “non-essential” business list includes:

  • “Entertainment venues and facilities,” such as movie theaters, bowling alleys and tourist attractions;
  • “Close-contact service providers,” including barber shops; hair, nail or tanning salons; and tattoo parlors;
  • Retail stores, including clothing, furniture, book, sporting goods and department stores, except for hardware and other home-improvement businesses. That exemption would include, for example, big-box stores such as Lowe’s or The Home Depot.

McMaster earlier closed all in-dining at restaurants statewide; on Friday, he banned hotels and other lodging businesses from accepting new reservations from those traveling from coronavirus hot spots. The state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism closed state parks through the end of this month.

The shutdown of large parts of the state’s economy has resulted in a surge of unemployment claims. Over a two-week period ending March 28, nearly 96,000 unemployment claims were filed statewide, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.

McMaster’s latest emergency order issued Monday maintains his “non-essential” business list, plus restricts the number of customers in “essential” businesses while allowing certain “essential” activities, such as caring for or visiting relatives in another home, attending religious services, or doing outdoor exercise as long as a minimum 6-foot separation is maintained between people not living in the same home.

Violation of a state emergency order is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum $100 fine or 30 days in jail.

As of late this afternoon, there were a total of 2,417 positive coronavirus or COVID-19 cases and 51 related deaths in South Carolina, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Calling the shots

Businesses that want to know whether they are classified by the state as “non-essential” must go through the S.C. Department of Commerce, under McMaster’s recent orders.

Those orders require Commerce to review any request by a business in the state for “clarification or a determination regarding the applicability” of the order to that business, and to “make a determination” whether it is “non-essential.”

Commerce is allowed under the orders to “consult” with state attorney general Alan Wilson’s office “as necessary and appropriate.”

When initially contacted Friday by The Nerve, Commerce spokeswoman Alex Clark in a written reply stressed that the agency was not engaging in “an exemption process,” noting that a Commerce “team” is “providing clarification for companies seeking additional guidance regarding their designation (after reviewing the non-essential business list outlined in the executive order).”

“If a company requests an exemption, our team is advising the same – that this is not an exemption process; it is to clarify the designation of a business,” she said.

In a follow-up response Monday, Clark said the agency “team” had responded to a total of 3,129 “inquiries,” noting that of the “clarification requests, 2,706 were essential and 247 were non-essential,” though she provided no other specifics.

Clark wouldn’t immediately provide a list identifying the businesses that contacted Commerce, directing The Nerve to submit a formal open-records request under state law.

Clark did release the names and titles of the seven Commerce “team” members evaluating the business requests, though agency director Bobby Hitt was not included. No public health or medical experts were listed; the members include staffers from the agency’s “global business development” and “recycling market development” sections, as well as from its “rural” and “trade” programs.

Asked about specific factors used in their evaluations, Clark said only the criteria used by the “team” are the “categories outlined in the two recent executive orders.” Although McMaster’s orders list categories of businesses classified as “non-essential,” the documents don’t specify public health criteria to be used in making those determinations, other than generally to “further promote ‘social distancing’ practices, facilitate self-isolation, and otherwise prevent exposure to COVID-19.”

Large manufacturers in the state that employ hundreds or thousands of workers, such as BMW, Boeing and Volvo, are not on McMaster’s “non-essential” business list, though BMW and Volvo recently announced they would voluntarily close their South Carolina plants temporarily in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Nerve over the years has reported about millions in state incentives provided to BMW, Boeing and Volvo – and Commerce’s secrecy about the taxpayer-backed gifts to those companies and other businesses locating or expanding in the state.

By law, Hitt chairs the state Coordinating Council for Economic Development, an 11-member panel that regularly doles out certain incentives. He also is a member of McMaster’s Cabinet as the Commerce director.

South Carolina Policy Council analysts Hannah Hill, Bryce Fiedler and Kelly Brady contributed to this story. 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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