Governor punts health-related powers to Commerce … again
By Rick Brundrett
Gov. Henry McMaster has once again granted the S.C. Department of Commerce – which isn’t a public health agency – the power to make health-related decisions in response to the coronavirus outbreak in the state.
McMaster announced that “gatherings,” defined in his executive order as a “planned or spontaneous indoor or outdoor event that involves or is reasonably expected to involve a large number people physically present,” must be limited to 250 people or 50 percent of the location’s legal occupancy capacity, whichever is less.
But he left a large loophole in his order, giving Commerce the authority to grant “exceptions” to the crowd-size restrictions.
The order requires a Commerce “team” to “review each request for clarification or an exception,” and provide an answer within 24 hours of receipt of the request. Any determination can be revised “in the sole discretion” of the department “at any point.”
Commerce can consult with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), under McMaster’s order, though all final decisions rest with Commerce. By law, the head of Commerce – currently Bobby Hitt – is appointed by the governor.
McMaster’s order specifically exempts the “normal operations” of private and public schools and colleges, as well as “religious activities or services,” from crowd-size limits.
McMaster in March ordered the temporary closure of what he deemed as “non-essential” businesses and activities – including spectator sports – and gave Commerce the authority to determine whether inquiring businesses were on the “non-essential” list.
But as The Nerve reported then, McMaster didn’t specify public health criteria to be used by Commerce in making those determinations, and that the agency’s seven-person review team had no public health or medical experts.
The Governor’s Office didn’t respond to a written request from The Nerve seeking comment on the latest executive order. Commerce also didn’t initially reply to written questions; The Nerve submitted a state Freedom of Information Act request to the agency asking for, among other things, records on who has requested crowd-size exemptions.
University of South Carolina athletics spokesman Charles Bloom told The Nerve that the university plans to seek an exemption from Commerce to “host large crowds” at Williams-Brice football stadium, which can seat 80,250, though he didn’t provide specifics. The Southeastern Conference (SEC) last week announced that a 10-game, conference-only schedule is set to begin Sept. 26.
Clemson University spokesman Joe Galbraith in an email response said to his knowledge, Commerce hasn’t granted an exemption to allow large crowds at football games at Memorial Stadium, which can seat 81,500, though he couldn’t immediately say whether the university applied for an exemption. Clemson’s first game in its revised 11-game schedule is planned for the week of Sept. 7.
The Nerve also sought comment from officials with Darlington Raceway, where NASCAR’s annual Southern 500 is set to run on Sept. 6, but didn’t receive a response.
A NASCAR source said raceway officials were “working very closely” with S.C. officials to determine whether fans would be allowed at the 47,000-seat racetrack for the September event.
(NOTE: Commerce ultimately granted permission last week for the race to be run with fans in the stands.)