Southern 500 plan: 8,000 fans, but no parades
By Bobby Bryant
The situation with Darlington’s annual Southern 500 stock-car race has been changing faster than a pit crew can switch a tire, but here’s what we know right now:
— The race will be held as scheduled Sept. 6, and Raceway officials can bring in up to 8,000 fans.
— Fans must observe strict rules for protecting themselves and others from the COVID-19 virus. Those rules will include mandatory face masks; a questionnaire about your health; temperature checks; “social distancing” in the stands; the likelihood of new seating assignments and staggered entry times.
— Two mainstays of the Southern 500 race season – the annual Darlington Car Hauler Parade and the annual Southern 500 Parade – will not be held this year because of COVID-19 concerns.
Those are the takeaways from a flurry of announcements that came through last week, including a letter sent to Southern 500 ticketholders Aug. 3 by Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp and a decision Aug. 6 by the S.C. Commerce Department to grant the raceway’s request to hold the event with fans.
The week began with Tharp’s letter to ticketholders, explaining what restrictions they are likely to face if they attend the race.
“We will make every attempt to place you in comparable seating as close as possible to your existing seats,” Tharp wrote. “You will be required to follow event protocols such as temperature screenings and utilizing face masks. Additional communications outlining specific event details, seat assignments, and health and safety measures will be sent in advance of the event.”
If ticketholders choose not to attend, they’ll get full credit for ticket costs at next year’s Southern 500. The deadline for taking that option was Aug. 9.
Then, in a separate announcement, unrelated to Tharp’s letter to ticketholders, race officials said that this year’s Darlington Car Hauler Parade and Southern 500 Parade both have been canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.
Both events are to return for the 2021 Southern 500.
A few hours after that announcement, the state Commerce Department told the News & Press in an e-mail that it had OK’d the raceway’s bid to hold the Southern 500 with fans in attendance. The agency now has a major say in such issues under Gov. Henry McMaster’s executive orders concerning the virus threat.
Alex Clark, spokesman for the agency, told the News & Press last Thursday: “Commerce received an application for the Southern 500 in Darlington. Following a careful review of that application, the relevant Executive Order from the governor, guidance from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and applicable law, the event request has been granted.”
Clark provided a copy of the message the Commerce Department sent to the Darlington Raceway. “Each application is evaluated individually,” the agency’s message noted. “Events anticipating at least 250-plus attendees must be able to comply with social distancing guidelines and best practices as issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and S.C. DHEC, and compliance with all local, state and federal laws.”
The Commerce Department added: “It is the responsibility of the host of the event to ensure that the event is held in a manner consistent with the law and the governor’s Executive Order. S.C. Department of Commerce and DHEC cannot certify that there will be no exposure to, or transmission of, COVID-19 even if all safety protocols are taken and guidelines are enforced.
“To host and/or attend events during the COVID-19 pandemic is solely at your own risk.”