Large events in S.C. almost always OK'd as COVID-19 cases climb



South Carolina's business agency has approved more than 90% of the more than 800 events that planned to attract at least 250 people since the governor removed the coronavirus-related ban on the gatherings in early August.

While the state Commerce Department reviews the events and approves them if they include proper social distancing plans and mask rules, it doesn't follow up to make sure events follow their own guidelines. That's left to local law enforcement.

Meanwhile, South Carolina's COVID-19 cases are creeping back toward a point not seen since Gov. Henry McMaster lifted the ban on large gatherings.

The state's seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases was 943 on Monday. It has been below 1,000 new cases since mid-August other than a few brief spikes as many schools returned in September.

The seven-day average for daily COVID-19 deaths have also been climbing from 12 to 22 over the past 10 days.

According to a new key indicator dashboard, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control is recording increases in indicators such as rate of cases, rate of tests and hospitalizations.

South Carolina's upward trend in cases, hospitalizations and deaths have not been as pronounced as areas in the central and western U.S., which are setting records for case counts and seeing hospitals overwhelmed.

With the last round of school districts

preparing to welcome children back into school buildings, there are other events that also have health officials worried, including Halloween and Election Day, as well as Thanksgiving and Christmas, when many college students and others may visit their families and spread disease.

McMaster has indicated he has no plans to reinstate restrictions put in place when the pandemic was beginning, including closing or limiting restaurant seating or preventing fans from attending football games, concerts or other large gatherings.

Of the more than 800 large events approved by the state Commerce Department, more than 20 of them anticipated crowds of more than 5,000, according to data reviewed by The Post and Courier of Charleston. Those include college football games at Clemson, the University of South Carolina and Coastal Carolina.

About a quarter of the applications are for events that want at least 1,000 people to attend.

About 60 events have been denied, including an outdoor concert at a Blythewood park that didn't provide enough space for social distancing and a drag race in Union County that wouldn't require attendees to wear masks, the newspaper reported.

McMaster's emergency orders during the COVID-19 outbreak allow police to shut down any gatherings that are a public health risk.

Police have concentrated more on dispersing large crowds than arresting or fining organizers of large gatherings.

"We haven't enforced our way out of the pandemic," Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs' Association told the Charleston newspaper. "We haven't all of a sudden reversed the spike because we've been out there writing tickets. It's more about education and reminders to socially distance."

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian said that approach is all wrong. People will keep pushing to gather in large groups like normal and that will further delay getting the pandemic under control so things can return to normal, the Columbia Democrat said.

Harpootlian has spent months urging state health officials to use their emergency powers to enforce the rules on large gatherings. DHEC has deferred to local police.

"I'm an old prosecutor," Harpootlian said. "We believe that part of the reason that you punish people is that it's a deterrent to other people."

Mask ordinances remain in 12 counties and 63 municipalities, including the cities of Sumter, Manning and Bishopville.

According to DHEC data, Sumter recorded the state's 25th highest rate of infection while being the state's 15th most populous county. Sumter County has had 165 COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks among its 3,523 total and 88 deaths.

Clarendon County continues to see declines in new cases since a spike at the end of July with brief fluctuations, and Lee County has been stable and low but consistently with one of the highest rates of infection in the state.

The Sumter Item's Kayla Green contributed to this article.