Columbia mayor: Governor creating headaches with special waivers

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COLUMBIA (AP) — Expressing frustration that police officers - charged with enforcing Gov. Henry McMaster's stay-at-home order during the coronavirus outbreak - are not being told which businesses have been granted permission to stay open, the mayor of South Carolina's capital city said he was pursuing an open-records request to obtain the information.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin told The Associated Press on Friday he was filing a Freedom of Information request for the records, which he said his office has been seeking for several days, so officers know when a business is out of compliance with closure directives.

Benjamin said the city receives daily reports from citizens regarding businesses they think are operating outside the confines of the governor's orders shutting down businesses deemed non-essential, violations of which possibly could result in a $100 fine or 30 days in jail.

"Our officers and our fire personnel are dealing with important issues every single day," Benjamin told the AP. "We can't run the risk of wasting their time chasing down a complaint that a non-essential business is open, only to show up, and that business presents us with an e-mail from the governor's office, saying that they've been exempted."

Last month, McMaster began to issue a series of executive orders denoting which businesses had been deemed non-essential and therefore must close, in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus. Visits to essential businesses like grocery stores, pharmacy and health care providers remained permissible.

Under a stay-at-home order, which went into effect Tuesday at 5 p.m., travel to those essential businesses, as well as work at jobs like hospitals, news media, manufacturers of critical equipment and stores, was allowed. Outside of those parameters, McMaster said, someone out and about could face penalties.

But the orders also set out a process by which businesses could request an evaluation of whether the service they offer is "'non-essential' based on whether it is deemed to be in the best interest of the State for such business … to continue operations." The requests were to be submitted to the Department of Commerce, which would decide within 24 hours whether the business could continue operations or not.

In an email to City of Columbia officials, Commerce attorney Karen Manning wrote Thursday that McMaster had asked the department "to keep businesses open wherever possible," noting that "some businesses, which on their face appear to be non-essential, may be authorized to be open" because they sell something that is essential, like a furniture store that sells appliances.

Officials with the Department of Commerce did not immediately provide the number of businesses that had applied for and been granted the ability to stay open.

Governor's spokesman Brian Symmes said the Commerce Department was working to publish a listing of businesses granted exemptions "as soon as possible." The agency also has an email address and phone number set up for anyone with questions about exemptions.

"The Department of Commerce has been working to put all of this information on their website, so that all of the public can see it, long before Mayor Benjamin submitted a FOIA request in search of a headline," Symmes said.

South Carolina reported nearly 2,800 coronavirus cases and 67 deaths as of Thursday afternoon, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe illness such as pneumonia, or even death.

Not knowing which businesses should be operating, and which should not, wastes precious time and resources that could be directed elsewhere, Benjamin said.

"The governor and his team have made some very clear statements that they were going to be committed to long term public health of South Carolinians and work to flatten the curve," Benjamin said. "If in fact that means that they're issuing significant exemptions all across the state, then that commitment is not real."