‘These are superspreader settings’: Maskless crowds seen after S.C. bar restrictions lifted

Updated: Mar. 12, 2021 at 1:59 AM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - An infectious disease expert said a surge in COVID-19 cases is “likely” over the next few weeks and months after videos show crowded bars in downtown Charleston.

The latest videos were shot on March 5, the first Friday night after Gov. Henry McMaster lifted South Carolina’s 11 p.m. alcohol sale restriction. They show large crowds inside and outside bars along Upper King Street, an area well known for its nightlife.

“These are superspreader settings,” Charleston-based infectious disease expert Dr. Robert Ball said. “They assume that since governors lift restrictions it’s okay to go out and party like it’s 2019.”

While the statewide requirement to wear masks in restaurants has also now been lifted, Charleston’s mask mandate is still in effect. On Tuesday, council members renewed it until April 14.

Over this past weekend though, despite groups of maskless people and a heavy police presence downtown, officers issued zero citations. Director of Livability and Tourism Dan Riccio said that’s because after the governor lifted the restrictions, many people at the bars didn’t think they still had to wear masks.

“Our protocol over the weekend was if they had to approach any individual who was not wearing a mask that that individual be reminded to put their mask on,” Riccio said. “Quite frankly, just about everyone the officers came in contact with had a mask with them. They just didn’t have them on.”

In total, officers have written 735 citations since the ordinance first went into effect in July. Almost 90-percent of those were written since mid-November when footage surfaced of large crowds on King Street bars around Halloween.

“The city’s livability task force and police officers have been writing more tickets. Kudos to them,” Ball said. “They should double those efforts to prevent a tremendous up surge.”

The City of Charleston has seen a steady decrease in reported cases over the past two weeks, reporting 157 new cases over the last seven days, according to their COVID-19 dashboard.

“There’s likely to be a surge in cases over the next few weeks and months thanks to crowded bars, restaurants, and spring break events as we’ve seen in Florida,” Ball said. “I hope and pray not. I fear it will.”

Ball said the decision by McMaster and other governors to lift restrictions on bars and restaurants is “premature,” but he gives “kudos” to bar and restaurant owners who are continuing to require masks for their staff and patrons.

“For those who have dropped the mask requirement for their individual businesses, I recommend reinstating that for the next few months,” Ball said.

Jill Maynard, the executive director of the Lowcountry Hospitality Association, said that the organization cannot speak regarding the weekend crowds but described the lifting of the 11 p.m. curfew on alcohol as a “meaningful step in [their] continued recovery from the devastating impacts of the pandemic.”

“Above all, the industry remains committed to public health and safety precautions to protect employees, guests, and the community,” Maynard said. “The Lowcountry Hospitality Association continues to collaborate with local and state officials as we have done throughout the crisis.”

Ball said that people should plan on wearing masks “through at least the summer” and that people will probably be able to safely go back to bars afterward.

“Hopefully by this fall, we will be able to return to some sense of the new normal,” he added.

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