Can our leaders even claim to be in response mode to this pandemic if their response is to do almost nothing?
As we shift focus to coronavirus recovery, neither Gov. Henry McMaster nor county and city leaders have been able to summon a real and practical plan to reopen our state safely that honors the serious response that forced businesses to shut their doors for weeks.
For his part, McMaster reopened local businesses during a state of emergency without so much as a single real regulation to make them operate safely without infecting more South Carolinians. In a remarkable feat of political gymnastics, McMaster at once acknowledged the critical role of the state’s hospitality industry by prioritizing a rapid reopening without any safeguards to actually protect it. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is charged with specific regulations, but has not proposed any. To be clear: McMaster’s initial executive order loosening restaurant closures on May 8 sets no real rules, stating only that restaurants “should consider and incorporate” industry-standard precautions. Masks? Social distancing? Who knows?
Closer to home, Charleston leaders knew on May 4 that McMaster’s order had no teeth — city attorney Susan Herdina told City Council as much — and our local officials still did nothing. After punting the issue until May 12, members of council wrung their hands over photos from a downtown nightclub that showed partiers in close quarters over the weekend. Despite an hours-long meeting and initial support from the mayor, city leaders deferred their duty another week. Great job, folks.
Of course, Charleston leaders aren’t alone in their inaction. Mount Pleasant Town Council also declined to set serious rules for reopening. Over the weekend, photos showed some Shem Creek bars as busy as ever.
Even beach communities have grown gun-shy to regulating reopening. Swatting away legal threats from County Council Chairman Elliott Summey last week, Folly Beach and Isle of Palms dropped checkpoints only to be overrun by beachgoers. During an emergency meeting on Saturday, Isle of Palms City Council members described a busier day than any in recent memory, but took no action.
What will it take for us to take coronavirus seriously? Remember, it is a disease.
South Carolina politicians like to say they don’t pick winners and losers, but that’s always been a bit of coded, business-friendly Newspeak. Now, they have avoided making decisions altogether, meaning that without clear, enforceable rules to keep us all safe, the businesses that do take the pandemic seriously are punished even more.
McMaster’s toothless recovery and our local leaders’ complicit indifference will hurt local businesses that reopen responsibly. In the short run, more people will get COVID-19 and die because of it — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham has admitted as much. In the long term, civic-minded businesses may recover, but without the head start of their reckless counterparts.
We can reopen and do it the right way, but it will mean putting public health over political and personal discomfort.
If our leaders can’t muster the nerve to make these hard decisions, then voters can take some blame and learn for next time: Don’t elect gutless people to public office.