SC group works to reopen businesses amid economic crisis and COVID-19

State’s superintendent of education says a return to classrooms for students and teachers isn’t guaranteed in August

VIDEO: Group works to reopen South Carolina

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The first meeting of Governor Henry McMaster’s accelerateSC task force revealed grim, new details about the economic crisis state and industry leaders are expecting from the coronavirus pandemic.

However, it’s still unclear how soon South Carolina’s economy can completely reopen or how that will happen.

“The last thing any of us want is to have a relapse,” McMaster said. “I’m confident we can work our way out of this with great success. We want to go as quickly as we can and as safely as we can to restore our economic vigor while also restoring our personal health.”

The state’s tourism industry, which produces about $1.8 billion dollars in state and local revenue, has taken one of the most substantial economic hits, according to the director of the state’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

“This situation has surpassed any crisis our industry has faced before, in part, because it happened so fast, and equally that it touched every single part of our industry,” Explore Charleston CEO Helen Hill said. “Passenger traffic is down 95 percent across all of our South Carolina airports, air service nationwide is now more reminiscent of 1950. That’s how few people are flying.”

However, a reopening of businesses, schools, and other industries may not be a return to normal.

“There will be change…We’re looking at a new normal. We don’t know exactly what it is, and that’s what this group has got to help us figure out,” SC’s Secretary of Commerce Robert Hitt said. “We need to make sure our workplaces are safe, our business places are safe, and people feel good coming back to them.”

The president of the Medical University of South Carolina said it will be a challenge to identify how the number of COVID-19 cases will be affected by reopening businesses because testing data isn’t provided instantaneously.

“In my opinion we just got to first base,” Dr. David Cole said. “Social distancing and quarantine has been working…so we do have an opportunity to move forward.”

However, Cole quickly followed that optimism with a stern warning.

“If we allow a second wave to emerge from the actions of our businesses or our communities, it could cripple our efforts to move forward,” Cole said. “If that happens, we will also lose further trust from our communities, which will make further, future efforts more difficult.”

Cole emphasized that health systems need to be able to maintain their ability to care for patients and monitor and respond if an increase in infections is revealed after businesses are opened.

He urged that staged and strategic efforts are necessary to provide businesses with guidance on proper operating procedures, staffing models, customer volumes, and testing protocols.

“We have to measure and know what’s happening. We can’t be blind in the communities as we move forward,” Cole said. “Understand that the leading indicators, the numbers that we get, represent two weeks ago…so any decisions we make now, we won’t know for two weeks, and any action we take will not take impact for several weeks.”

The healthcare sector has also taken an economic hit, as the second highest industry in the state for layoffs and duress.

Meanwhile, Education Superintendent Molly Spearman acknowledged Wednesday’s announcement that SC’s classrooms will be closed the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. However, she also suggested a complete return to a traditional education setting for students and teachers in August isn’t guaranteed.

“We don’t know yet whether we’ll we back. We want to be prepared one way or the other,” Spearman said. “There’s no way I believe, unless there’s just a miracle, that we can bring back children to the same type of setting that we’ve always had…How could we have face to face instruction with using social distancing in our schools? Our schools aren’t big enough, for right now, to handle everybody at the same time. So, we’ve got to come up with some things there.”

Spearman said she’s also concerned about the digital divide that has left thousands of students and teachers without the technological resources needed to provide lessons through eLearning. She’s also worried about the stress and emotional toll the coronavirus pandemic and closure of schools has taken on students and families.

“How do we meet this tremendous emotional trauma that our children and families have gone through in South Carolina? How do we address that and how do we support them when they come back?” Spearman said.

Higher education is facing its own unique challenges, too. Many college and university presidents are grappling over whether the Fall semester’s instruction will continue online or move back on campus.

“We are focusing pretty much on July, July 1 to July 15, as being a critical date to try to make the determination as to whether or not we’re coming back on campus,” Francis Marion University President Dr. Fred Carter said. “Then there’s the question of affordability. Depending upon the institution, tuition accounts for 80 to 95 percent of our budgets. The critical question now, the essential question can parents or students who are struggling financially afford to pay that tuition in the fall? Even with no tuition increases or even tuition reductions, I think the state faces a challenge with regard to getting our students back and being able to afford those tuition costs.”

Carter said other budgetary challenges could mean colleges and universities may have to restructure and redevelop parts of their curriculum.

“These days very few people take education for granted. Our faculty are working too hard to provide it, and our students are working too hard to acquire it,” Carter said. “I think every university and college president in South Carolina are as proud as we can be of both our faculty and students. So proud, so proud that we are determined to do whatever it takes to continue to secure their future educationally, whatever it takes.”

Representative Lee Hewitt, whose district covers Charleston and Georgetown counties, is serving in an advisory role for the accelerateSC task force.

“Certainly, there are a lot of grim details when you’re looking at 50 percent lost revenue in tourism, which is the biggest part of our economy,” Hewitt said. “We need to be careful about how we do reopen. Hopefully give businesses some guidance on how they can prepare for people to come back and also to give confidence to the tourist and consumer that it’s safe to go out.”

Hewitt said it’s important the reopening process is deliberately managed to avoid a second wave of infections.

“We need to be smart, and when we go out, smart in our decisions, realize that we can’t go back to normal yet,” Hewitt said. “The smarter we are, the better practices we have, will help shorten and flatten the curve back to where we can quickly get back to our normal lives.”

Hewitt said part of that return to normal will be helping employers and employees return to their jobs. However, he and other elected leaders are fearful enhanced unemployment benefits may persuade employees to delay their return to the workforce.

“When you’ve got the regular unemployment benefit, then you put the $600 on top of that, then you’ve got employees that could be bringing back close to $1,000 a week, and they’re not used to making that,” Hewitt said. “But what I’m getting a sense of from the employees I’ve talked to is they just want to get back to work.

Hewitt said the state’s Department of Employment and Workforce would handle those issues and allow employers to report such incidents.

While a timeline for reopening has not been defined, Hewitt said it was his impression that state and local leaders and industry representatives would like those efforts to happen sooner rather than later.

“How quickly we come out of it is going to be a key factor in how big of a crisis is it,” Hewitt said.

Sub-group meetings will start on Monday. State agencies will assist each group and some lawmakers are serving as advisors, like Rep. Lee Hewitt.

The entire accelerateSC task force will reconvene and provide recommendations to the governor the following week.

Copyright 2020 WCSC. All rights reserved.