Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast
COLUMBIA, S.C.—On May 11, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster officially reopened the state economy after four weeks of government-mandated social distancing aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“With our increased capacity for testing the people of our state, it is time to responsibly and gradually get these small businesses back up and running,” McMaster said in a statement.
“We have an opportunity to set an example for the rest of the world by reinvigorating our economy while staying safe, but we can only do that if South Carolinians continue to follow the advice and recommendations of our public health experts.”
Almost exactly one month later, South Carolina had arguably its worst week yet in the pandemic.
Between June 1 and this past Monday, this state of five million people registered 3,069 new infections and 63 deaths, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). By Monday, the health agency had counted 14,800 total coronavirus cases and 557 deaths, and projected an overall COVID-19 case rate of 442 per 100,000 people by June 27. The agency said that was worse than California’s 323-per-100,000 rate as of June 6, but much better than New York’s 1,965 per 100,000.
But what’s chilling about South Carolina’s stats is that all the evidence points to the pandemic getting worse here, not better. “It seems pretty clear that these data indicate an increasing circulation of the virus,” Theresa MacPhail, an author and medical anthropologist at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, told The Daily Beast.
There were 624 new infections in South Carolina on June 6, according to Johns Hopkins’ coronavirus tracker, which recorded a spike in infections in South Carolina starting on Thursday, and an ominous two-week trend that didn’t come close to federal reopening guidelines.
While the data seem to indicate that social distancing in April helped to prevent South Carolina hospitals from being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients, the numbers also suggest that McMaster’s eagerness to reopen the economy has backfired on the state’s residents.
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More people are getting sick. More people are dying. The death rate for infected patients hasn’t really changed: It was about 3.6 percent in early May and 3.5 percent in early June. And some businesses, having reopened just a few weeks ago, are closing again. McMaster’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The novel coronavirus officially arrived in South Carolina on Feb. 24 with six infections, according to DHEC figures. State-organized testing began the first week of March. The first COVID-19 death is said to have occurred on March 16. That same day, McMaster, a Republican and a close ally of Donald Trump, suspended activities at the state’s schools. But he didn’t close businesses—yet. And for a few weeks he didn’t try to stop large public gatherings, either.
The state’s major cities of Columbia and Charleston began implementing social-distancing measures on their own in late March, closing bars and restaurants, imposing curfews, and limiting public gatherings.
But aside from closing schools, in the first month or so of the coronavirus’s spread in South Carolina, there was very little in the way of a statewide effort to slow the pathogen. As late as the end of March, the Republican-led state government was actively discouraging local public-health efforts. “We affirm that local government cannot exercise the emergency powers delegated to the governor by the general assembly,” attorney general Alan Wilson stated on March 27. The general assembly is South Carolina’s state legislature.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, a Democrat, brushed off Wilson’s memo and continued with local social-distancing measures. “The actions taken by the city are entirely within our authority,” Benjamin said.
There was an early statewide spike in new infections on April 6, with 183 new patients. The next day, McMaster finally ordered many businesses to close all over the state. Bars, restaurants, nail and hair salons, entertainment venues, and gyms shut their doors. At the state’s encouragement, many churches moved their services online.
At the peak of social-distancing in South Carolina in early April, DHEC estimated the population’s mobility to be down 42 percent compared to normal. By comparison, in New York City mobility dropped more than an estimated 90 percent, in late March, though metrics used to gauge mobility varied in the two appraisals.
The infection rate flattened. South Carolina’s hospitals have 405 beds in intensive care units, but the most ICU beds it ever needed for pandemic-response was 105 on May 1.
Although late to start, South Carolina succeeded in bending the curve. But as in a slew of other states, there were signs early on that public-health measures wouldn’t last. The first major public protest against social-distancing measures occurred in Columbia on April 24. A few hundred people, many of them from out of town, marched or demonstrated from their cars.
Such protests, which Trump himself encouraged, were common in Democratic-led states. South Carolina was one of the few exceptions, where protests targeted Republican leaders.
In early May, Trump began insisting the United States should reopen with or without a coronavirus vaccine and regardless of whether all states had succeeded in containing the virus. McMaster, who was an early endorser of Trump back in 2016, had moved swiftly to lift South Carolina’s public-health measures.
The state’s “work or home” order ended on May 4. On Memorial Day weekend in Hilton Head, South Carolina, 62,524 cars traveled over the city’s bridges in both directions heading to and from the area’s popular beaches. That was just 10,000 fewer cars than crossed the bridge on the same weekend in 2019.
By June 8, overall state mobility was down just 13 percent compared to normal, according to DHEC. Mandatory social distance had all but ended. DHEC continued to urge people to voluntarily wear masks, wash their hands, and avoid crowds.
Coronavirus cases spiked. The health agency cites numbers showing a peak in deaths between April 28 and May 6, when 11 people died of COVID-19 per day, on average. The daily death rate declined to around six per day by May 24. Then it began climbing again. In the first week of June, around nine people died per day, and the rate was rising.
DHEC knows it has a problem. “While we expect the number of cases to increase as we work with community partners to increased testing events around the state, we’re also observing that many are not adhering to public health recommendations to social distance, avoid large gatherings, and wear a mask in public,” the agency told The Daily Beast in a statement.
Many restaurants and bars that reopened in May shut down again in June after learning from DHEC that staff members had tested positive for the coronavirus.
One of them was Carolina Ale House in Columbia. “We are closing early tonight for a management-led, thorough deep cleaning and sanitation,” the restaurant announced on June 5. DHEC also informed Columbia’s Publico Kitchen and Tap that some of its staff members tested positive. The restaurant had already reopened, closed, and reopened again. Now it was doing it a third time. “We want to maintain the highest level of standards while ensuring public safety during these times,” the restaurant’s management announced on June 3.
Through early June, the health agency continued alerting restaurants about infected staff and requiring temporary closings, sterilizations, and public notifications. But McMaster did not restore any statewide measures.
One Columbia bar owner expressed his frustration with the state’s reopening plan. “Kind of like sticking your head in the sand because you don’t want to see what’s happening,” he said, requesting anonymity because he feared backlash in the deeply conservative state.
“We have been nudged into doing business knowing that we have to walk the line between putting food on our table and keeping ourselves, family, staff, and customers safe,” Sean McCrossin, the owner of several Columbia restaurants, told The Daily Beast.
Anthony Alberg, an epidemiologist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, told The Daily Beast he was not surprised South Carolina has failed to contain the pandemic. And, he argued, its current trajectory should not be attributed to improved disease surveillance.
“Early on, South Carolina took the essential steps needed to flatten the curve,” Alberg said. “The problem has been re-opening too soon, which has led to a very large upsurge in COVID-19 cases that cannot be accounted for solely due to the increased testing for active SARS-CoV-2 infections.”
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