Parties in the pandemic: What experts and Lowcountry laws say

Updated: Aug. 7, 2020 at 7:41 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some weddings and other large functions are continuing to take place in the Lowcountry.

Local regulations regarding gatherings vary from municipality to municipality and there is currently no statewide mask requirement in place in South Carolina. However, local officials and public health experts continue to urge caution when proceeding with any indoor or outdoor event in the Charleston area.

Dr. Robert Ball, an infectious disease specialist based in Charleston, said that in general, holding gatherings outdoors is much wiser than congregating in places such as crowded bars along King Street. Despite this, he strongly advises social distancing and wearing masks even while at an event outside.

“If somebody is coughing, sneezing, shouting, singing, they can spew virus for more than six feet,” Ball said, adding that should people decide to proceed with gatherings, “distance and masks are the most important.”

A viewer concerned about events taking place on the premises of a popular venue in downtown Charleston submitted a tip about the concerns recently. Video recorded outside the venue in late July shows an apparent lack of masks and social distancing among attendees of a wedding. This is despite the function’s location within city limits in 29403, the ZIP code with the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Carolina.

Charleston’s COVID-19 emergency ordinance says that with some exceptions, “the use of a face covering or mask is required by every person within the boundaries of the City of Charleston” in all public places and “when participating in a permitted or allowable gathering.”

Daniel Riccio, the director of the Charleston Department of Livability and Tourism, said social distancing and mask requirements apply to events on public and private property.

“The exemptions would be if you’re actively eating, drinking or even smoking, you don’t have to wear a mask, but at all other times you need to wear your mask,” Riccio said.

Riccio added that the City of Charleston is working with local businesses to educate people about the ordinance. He said that many local event venues have protocols in place to follow public health guidelines, but parties are currently discouraged.

In 29445, where the South Carolina Department of Environmental Control estimates that there are 9,529 COVID-19 cases, the City of Goose Creek’s emergency proclamation requires masks inside all public spaces. However, the proclamation does not reference private gatherings.

“We certainly strongly encourage the use of masks and social distancing for all events in the City, and that would include functions such as weddings,” Goose Creek spokesperson Franklin Johnson said.

In neighboring North Charleston, there is also an emergency proclamation in place.

“All persons who are present within the incorporated areas of the City of North Charleston are required to wear an appropriate face covering any time they are in contact with other persons who are not household members in indoor public places and indoor businesses where it is not possible to maintain a six-foot distance from others or where social distancing is not or cannot be being practiced,” North Charleston spokesperson Ryan Johnson explained.

“Face coverings are still required for outdoor or unenclosed areas where six foot social distancing cannot be maintained,” Johnson added.

Although it generally requires face coverings inside grocery stores and municipal buildings, Mount Pleasant’s emergency ordinance does not specifically address gatherings. Representatives of Mount Pleasant’s municipal government did not respond to a request for comment about rules and recommendations for events.

Meanwhile, the Town of Summerville’s emergency ordinance states that with some exceptions such as being outside and maintaining six-foot social distancing, face coverings are required while participating in a gathering.

Ball stressed the importance of wearing a mask should people choose to attend a gathering, but noted that the specific type of face covering that people choose to wear matters less than taking the step of wearing one in the first place.

“If we don’t develop some common sense among the general population, yes, we will likely see more shutdown orders and business closures,” Ball said. “Use common sense. Sadly, many people don’t.”

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