Gov. Henry McMaster was warned about reopening beaches amid coronavirus. He did it anyway

Kirk Brown
Greenville News

One day before Gov. Henry McMaster announced that beaches and some retail stores in South Carolina could reopen, health officials told his office that the moves posed serious risks related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Those risks included the likelihood that the state's oceanfront communities could see an influx of visitors who would ignore social-distancing guidelines as well as a "perception that loosened restrictions may lead to a false sense of security," according to an April 19 memo obtained by The Greenville News through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Earlier that same day, an aide to McMaster was copied on an email stating that an independent global research center — the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle — had recommended social-distancing rules in South Carolina should not be relaxed until "around June 1."

"They warn that reducing preventative measures too soon could lead to a rebound in disease activity," said the email from Jennifer Read, chief of staff for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster says he believes the risks from the coronavirus pandemic will diminish enough by late June so that businesses and activities “may be safely resumed and conducted using personal safety precautions.”

Although McMaster was unswayed, the memo and email were correct. Cases in South Carolina's urban areas and coastal counties have increased dramatically as people have congregated there, often without wearing masks or adhering to social-distancing practices designed to slow the spread of the disease and save lives.

Speaking at an April 20 news conference, the Republican governor said he was ending the mandatory closure of beaches and shops "in light of the common sense being shown by the great people of South Carolina."

Two weeks later, he lifted a stay-home order that had been in effect for less than a month and also permitted outdoor dining to resume at restaurants. Indoor dining returned a week after that. Beauty parlors, gyms and attractions were back in business before Memorial Day.

The virus spread all the while.

COVID-19 cases soared after stores and beaches reopened in SC

The warnings that McMaster's staff received on that Sunday in April proved to be accurate. 

At that point, South Carolina had seen at least 4,377 cases of COVID-19 and 120 deaths. The highest one-day total for new cases had been 276 on April 16. There were projections that hospitalizations in the state had already peaked and that deaths would level off, topping out at 217 by Aug. 4.

In the 11 weeks since then, COVID-19 cases in the state have increased almost ten-fold, with a new daily high of 1,836 cases coming on July 4, according to DHEC. There have been at least 718 additional deaths, including more than 100 in the past week. The total number of deaths in South Carolina is now forecast to rise to 4,059 by Nov. 1, according to an updated projection released Tuesday. Hospitalizations also have steadily increased, reaching a new high on Tuesday of 1,324 patients.

More:Greenville identified as a coronavirus hot spot as new cases lead SC for 8 days in a row

Asked to comment on the documents that The News obtained through its FOIA request, McMaster's spokesperson, Brian Symmes, emailed a statement Tuesday afternoon.

"Not only has the governor been aware of opinions from public health officials, he welcomes that information and demands that he has it — it’s a part of his decision-making process as he weighs those factors with others like the state’s economic health, South Carolinians’ mental health, and countless more," Symmes wrote. 

"The governor only lifted these restrictions when we collectively learned what each South Carolinian can do to stop the spread of the virus and protect our communities," Symmes added. "It simply isn’t the government’s job to restrict businesses and personal liberties until there’s zero risk of spreading the virus."

Nick Davidson, who is helping lead DHEC's response to the coronavirus pandemic, said during a media briefing Thursday that the agency stays in "close communication with the governor."

"We don’t pretend as public health experts to try to understand or ...dictate how government should run. We are not coming in to close certain businesses. That is not the role of public health," Davidson said. "We are certainly advisers and we are going to help people make the right decisions. But at the same time, if you start looking to public health for how to run the government, you are probably barking up the wrong tree.”

Largest COVID-19 spikes have been in Greenville, Charleston, Myrtle Beach. Charleston now leads in SC cases

Greenville County, which was identified as a coronavirus hot spot last month, and a pair of coastal areas have seen the largest COVID-19 spikes in recent weeks.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Greenville County has grown from fewer than 500 when McMaster started easing restrictions in April to a total of 6,059 on Tuesday, which is an increase of roughly 1,100%. Greenville County has had 79 confirmed COVID-19 deaths and one probable death, tying Richland County for the most in South Carolina.

Charleston County has experienced a surge, and it passed Greenville on Tuesday as the South Carolina county with the most cases.

"Community transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 is widespread" in the Charleston metro area, according to an assessment this month by the Medical University of South Carolina's Epidemiology Intelligence Project. "The current risk of infection is at its highest to date, and much higher than during the earlier lockdown period in April."

Myrtle Beach has received unwanted national attention because dozens of visitors from several states tested positive for COVID-19 after vacationing there, according to reports.

While McMaster has lifted restrictions on most businesses and activities in South Carolina, he said last week that he will not allow spectator sports such as college or high school football to resume until the state's rising COVID-19 numbers are reversed.

Read, DHEC's chief of staff, said in an email Tuesday that it is "critical that everyone continues to take steps to stop the spread of COVID-19."

"As of today, the best thing South Carolinians can do to protect themselves is to wear a mask around others, physically distance yourself from others by six feet, avoid group gatherings, and wash your hands often," she stated.

Kirk Brown covers government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @KirkBrown_AIM