Ruta Smith file photo

[image-1]As businesses begin reopening after the coronavirus pandemic forced widespread shutdowns, Charleston officials are divided on how to make sure residents stay safe when they start visiting newly reopened local businesses.

Gov. Henry McMaster’s office has been slowly rolling back restrictions on businesses over the past few weeks, beginning with restaurant openings last week. The City of Charleston was one of the first in the state to consider a stay-at-home ordinance earlier this year, but leaders are taking a different approach to unwind the pandemic response. With a few exceptions, the city has been following the governor’s lead, according to several members of City Council, while also making an effort to keep people safe.

“Everything that we’ve been doing has mirrored the state recommendations,” Councilman Jason Sakran told the City Paper. “I feel very confident and hopeful that we’re going to continue to mirror what the governor proposes.” 

[image-3]While the state’s reopening continues, City Council is choosing its local ordinances slowly, sometimes approving local orders in piecemeal, deferring others for a closer look. At their meeting on May 12, members were slated to take up a proposed extension of the current state of emergency as well as temporary ordinances related to easing restrictions on restaurants.

Many food-and-beverage businesses fell back to take-out and delivery service only during widespread closures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But a new executive order from McMaster allowed limited dine-in service to restart on May 11, stipulating that businesses “consider” general guidelines limiting occupancy and distance between patrons.

Portions of the city’s own proposed restaurant guidelines, including rules easing rules on outdoor dining, were passed, but language spelling out requirements for restaurants looking to restart dine-in service were deferred until the group meets again on May 18. Restaurant requirements became a point of contention at Tuesday’s meeting, with members divided on whether the city should give the requirements the force of law in the name of public health.

Councilman Robert Mitchell opposed deferring the proposals, arguing that establishments need a set of rules to follow to keep residents healthy. “We are doing this for safety reasons,” he said at the meeting. “I had four people die already, two in my family, from this virus. It’s very, very important to me.”

The intent of the deferral, according to Councilwoman Carol Jackson, is to wait and see if restaurants and patrons follow the guidelines set out by the state before enforcing a new local ordinance. City Council will likely rely on anecdotal evidence from livability officers and residents, according to Jackson.

“If we find out that there was a lot of bad behavior in terms of not really following the governor’s guidelines, then my guess is we probably will have a majority that votes to make our guidelines enforceable,” she said.

[image-2]Charleston City Councilman Harry Griffin believes city leaders will continue to closely watch the governor’s orders in the coming weeks.

“We can add on some other ideas or put some more thoughts or actions into our orders as long as they don’t conflict with the governor’s orders,” he said. “Once the governor opens up salons next week, we can still add in some other social distancing guidelines for businesses to practice.”

McMaster announced gyms, public pools, cosmetology services and other close-contact businesses are able to reopen on May 18.

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