City government closes doors on virus threat; County allowing ‘very limited’ access to Courthouse
By Bobby Bryant
Darlington County, the city of Darlington and the city of Hartsville are locking up, to varying degrees, in an attempt to lock out the coronavirus threat that’s paralyzing the nation.
Darlington and Hartsville city governments are not shutting down their offices, but they are barring the public through the end of the month. Crucial services will continue, but residents will have to conduct business by phone or e-mail.
Darlington County is not shutting down the Courthouse nor blocking all access by the public. But the county will only allow “very limited access” for business that can’t be handled by phone or computer.
And visitors must have their hands sprayed with sanitizer and be scanned by an electronic thermometer, in addition to the usual security procedures such as going through a metal detector and putting purses, briefcases and satchels through an X-ray machine.
“We are monitoring for fevers,” said Molly Odom, the county’s emergency-management coordinator.
The county library system is temporarily closed to the public. Access to Darlington city offices is restricted to “essential personnel” through March 31. Hartsville City Hall is closed to the public through March 31. Municipal court sessions in both cities have been postponed.
Darlington City Council approved the city’s “contingency plan” for dealing with the pandemic threat in a 15-minute emergency meeting March 16; County Council held a similar emergency session the next day and released its seven-page virus-fighting plan March 18.
Under Darlington’s plan, city offices have been closed to the public since March 17. No utilities will be cut off “during this state of emergency.” Residential and commercial garbage collection, and pickup of yard debris, will continue as usual.
But through the end of March, the city of Darlington has canceled all recreation activities and all city meetings. Indoor recreational facilities are closed. No recycling materials will be picked up.
Under the county’s emergency-response plan, taxes can be paid by phone, online or at these banks: Carolina Bank and SPC Cooperative Credit Union, Darlington; Carolina Bank, Lamar; Carolina Bank, Society Hill; or Carolina Bank, First Citizens, Citizens Bank, SPC Cooperative Credit Union, Wells Fargo, or South State Bank, Hartsville.
The offices of probate court, clerk of court, codes enforcement, planning, assessor and auditor ask that you call in advance. Tax collector: Appointment only. Humane Society animal shelter: Drop-offs and adoptions by appointment only. No visitors will be allowed at EMS, 911 service or county fire department.
Magistrate services are by appointment only. The Mozingo Building is closed. No visitors at Council on Aging locations. The county Historical Commission is closed to the public. All Parks, Recreation and Tourism facilities are closed. The landfill will continue to operate.
These policies took effect March 19, and they will continue until further notice, Odom said. The county did not set an ending date because the virus situation is changing so fast, Odom said. Darlington County has set up an information line for questions and concerns from citizens: 843-398-4469. It will operate Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Under the city of Hartsville’s plan, City Hall is off limits to the public. Garbage collection and pickup of yard debris won’t be affected. The Hartsville Police Department lobby is closed to the public, and police response “will be limited to emergency calls,” the city says. “Non-emergency calls and police reports will be completed over the phone … to minimize contact. Officers will wear additional personal protective gear to reduce exposure.”
Likewise, the Hartsville Fire Department lobby is closed to the public, and firefighters “will wear additional personal protective gear to reduce exposure. … (The) Hartsville Fire Department will respond only to medical calls of an acute nature.”
Bond hearings “will be held via teleconference,” Hartsville city officials said. The Hartsville Museum will be closed to the public.
All public schools in the Darlington County School District have been closed through March 31 by order of Gov. Henry McMaster, but district officials have laid out detailed plans for conducting classes by computer and for getting meals to students who depend on the school system for their nutrition. (See related stories in this issue.)
The district has set up two hotlines to help students, parents and staff get information while the schools are closed. The new “technology” hotline number is 843-398-6200; it’s intended for students who need help with technology related to “eLearning” classes by computer and for teachers with technical or instructional issues. The district also has established a coronavirus information hotline: 843-398-6205.
On March 20, the county school board held an emergency meeting that was closed to the press and public because of the coronavirus threat. However, the school district broadcast the meeting live on its Facebook page.
During the meeting, county Superintendent of Education Tim Newman praised the district’s food-service workers and bus drivers for preparing and delivering meals to sites around the county, serving students who depend on meals provided by their now-closed schools.
They have “been doing an incredible job,” Newman said. “Our food-service workers and bus drivers are being expected to be what I call on the front lines. Not only are they gathering in spaces together, but they are going out into the community where there are lots of people. In my mind, I think that is more responsibility than what they normally have to do.”
At Newman’s suggestion, the board approved a $100 bonus for district food-service employees and bus drivers. Newman also said the district plans to rotate those employees to reduce virus exposure.
Last week, free meals were given out at roughly 30 sites in the county every weekday; Newman said the district will reduce that to two days a week, although the same amount of food will be distributed.
Newman told the board that he expects McMaster to keep the schools closed longer than the governor’s original date of March 31. “We are just working through what does this look like, long-term.” Officials are also weighing issues like graduation – will schools be able to hold traditional ceremonies?
Other changes as a result of the coronavirus threat include:
— All restaurants in South Carolina can only operate on a take-out basis by order of the governor. Customers temporarily are not allowed to eat inside. Local restaurants might decide to limit hours or menu choices during this emergency; call first or check their website or Facebook page to see how an individual restaurant is handling the situation.
Darlington city officials have blocked off several parking spots on the Public Square for “To-Go Parking Only” to assist nearby restaurants. The city has put up signs and traffic cones marking three parking spaces on the south side and three on the west side of the Square nearest the restaurants.
“Most restaurants have a dedicated parking lot, so this is not an issue,” city planning director Lisa Chalian-Rock said in a statement.
“We would hate to see these businesses struggle any more than they likely already will given the COVID-19 outbreak. … The business owners needed some help, and this was an easy fix, to mandate a few spots for take-out. I appreciate the city manager and City Council’s support of this plan and thank the Darlington Police Department for enforcing it.”
Rock said some local restaurants, including South of Pearl, are closing until the governor’s emergency order ends. She said most restaurants in Darlington are taking call-in orders; some are offering curbside service, such as Taki’s Diner and Joe’s Grill. Mamma Mia’s Italian Kitchen was to start delivery service this week.
The Darlington Chamber of Commerce says these restaurants are among those doing takeout and/or curbside pickup: Taki’s, Fahrenheit 225, Jewel’s, the Dairy Bar, Tenampa, Joe’s Grill, House of Wings, Sara’s Porch, Fast Track Deli, Mayflower Seafood, Raceway Grill, Mamma Mia’s, Waffle House and B&B Restaurant.
— Duke Energy says it won’t disconnect any customer’s service for non-payment “to give customers experiencing financial hardship extra time to make payments.” The company will respond to outages as usual. “If technicians need to interact with customers in person … they will follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s safety guidelines, including social distancing,” the company says.
— McLeod Health facilities in the area continue to limit who can visit patients and how often. “Visitors will be limited to no more than one guest over the age of 18,” McLeod officials said. “Children under the age of 18 cannot visit at this time. … All visitors exhibiting signs or symptoms of illness (fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, runny nose) will be asked not to visit patients.”
— Pee Dee Electric Cooperative says it has started practicing “social distancing” and will reduce contact with customers during the emergency. Through March 31, the Darlington office walk-in lobby will be closed to visitors.
— Dollar General stores are dedicating the first hour of every shopping day to senior citizens, who are most at risk from the coronavirus. The company is asking younger people to hold off on their errands during the first hour stores are open so older shoppers can have the stores to themselves. Other stores are doing the same.
— The Trinity – Byrnes Collegiate School is closed through March 31, and is conducting classes by computer.
— The Pee Dee Regional Transportation Authority says it has “increased our cleaning with disinfectants across all of our routes and facilities throughout the day and we have continued to clean after each service day. We are paying particular attention to seats, armrests, grab rails, handles and fare-boxes.” The PDRTA also planned to run its buses with windows open (if possible) to increase ventilation. Also, it planned to use bigger buses on commuter routes to let passengers “distance themselves from others.”
— Darlington Raceway is temporarily off limits to the public; employees are working from home. The September running of the Southern 500 has not been changed.
— Clemson Extension Service has closed all county offices to the public.
— The annual A Taste of Darlington, set for April 23, has been postponed.
— All S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles offices remain open, but drivers are encouraged to do business online.
— Society Hill has closed the Town Hall lobby to the public. Town offices will be staffed Tuesday-Thursday for phone calls. Bills can be mailed or left in a drop box.
–Lamar has closed Town Hall to the public. Bills can be mailed or left in drop box.