A week after Mayor John Tecklenburg ordered Charleston residents to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Henry McMaster had the entire state take its own half step, closing nonessential businesses to help slow transmission of the disease. Combined, the two orders slowed the pace of normal life in the state and ostensibly criminalized gathering in groups of more than three people.
Whether these efforts will work to flatten the curve is still unknown, but in the immediate days since their announcement, Charleston police say residents are generally following direction.
The Charleston Police Department had issued “hundreds” of warnings to ordinance breakers and one citation as of April 2, said Chief Luther Reynolds.
The citation, he adds, went to a restaurant that kept its dining room open after they were ordered to close by the city. “Even in that case, they were very cooperative, they stopped that activity and it did not reoccur after that citation,” Reynolds says.
Michael Schmidt, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina, believes the ordinances can help, if people cooperate. Referencing the skirmish between the state and smaller municipalities, like beach towns, over closing public spaces, he says, “It’s unfortunate that we are not speaking from one voice. That would make things easier, but each town is to be commended for protecting their citizens.”
McMaster’s latest order requires officers to issue a warning before taking additional action. If an offender willfully ignores a request to disperse from an area, police may issue a citation. In both the city and state’s emergency laws, the fine is up to $100 or up to 30 days in prison.
Schmidt says the U.S. is suffering for allowing COVID-19 to spread across the country, but says the orders can be effective. “These ordinances are intended to help preserve our capacity to have health care,” he says. “People are still going to fall down the stairs and break their leg, people are still going to have heart attacks. We have to be able to treat the normal ill. The United States didn’t have an overabundance of empty hospital beds.”
The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office also says its deputies had not issued any citations as of April 1. “As situations arise, the Sheriff’s Office will make every effort to inform, educate and warn,” says public information officer Roger Antonio. “We will cite for continued noncompliance.”
McMaster said on Tuesday that traffic on South Carolina interstates is down by two-thirds. The same day, McMaster ordered the closure of public waterway accesses.
Reynolds has noticed less movement on Charleston roads and waterways. “We are trending in the right direction,” with fewer and smaller groups congregating outdoors in public areas, he says.
The city’s public parks can be an easy place for many people to gather at once, especially as some experts encourage outdoor exercise as long as people are mindful of social distancing protocol. Some citizens have reported seeing crowds forming in areas like Hampton Park, but Reynolds claims otherwise.
“This past weekend, there was not one single person in Marion Square,” he says. “At Brittlebank Park, you had a couple people walking their dogs, running, but basically nothing compared to what you would have had on a nice day, a weekend in Charleston.”