COLOMBIA – Governor Henry McMaster’s latest coronavirus-related executive order includes a non-congregation rule that can leave some small bars out of space for its customers and may force some to close, hospitality industry leaders said on Tuesday.
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the rules enacted on Monday require social distance, specifying that customers are not together in one area of the business. Each set of customers must have separate seats from other groups.
“Restaurants must not allow customers and customers to stand or meet in any area of the bar,” says the governor’s order. “Restaurants must remove the bar stools or organize them in a way to ensure that customers and clients can keep a minimum of six feet away from other parties.”
The order also requires that restaurants and bars require customers to wear masks or other facial coverings, “except while they are actively involved in eating or drinking”.
Legally in South Carolina, bars operate under restaurant laws. A previous order from the governor demanded that the sale on the spot or the consumption of alcohol end at 11 pm.
It is unclear how bars can operate under these rules, especially in smaller places that would be difficult to provide space seats for the bar’s customers, said Steve Cook, a restaurateur and chairman of the Five Points Association in Columbia.
“It almost makes opening impossible,” said Cook.
For upscale restaurants, like Saluda’s, the new rules enforce the guidelines that companies have been following, Cook said. Restaurants should now be on the lookout for customers who greet people they know at the bar and stop to chat – this is a breach of the rule that could put an alcohol license at risk, he said.
The executive order is intended to help prevent the coronavirus from being approved at public meetings, using rules and masks of social detachment, said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes.
“The governor has limited the virus’s ability to spread in these environments,” said Symmes.
Bars tend to attract younger customers at a time when COVID-19 cases are increasing among them. South Carolinians aged 21 to 30 years make up the majority of COVID-19 cases, according to state data. The order comes as college students prepare to return to campuses.
Coronavirus cases have dropped in the past few weeks across the state, but remain well above levels when the governor eased restrictions, including ending a job or home order and lifting the ban on in-house dining in May.
Large gatherings in places like bars now pose substantial public health risks, Symmes said, and the governor hopes people will also avoid these events in private homes, which are beyond the scope of his order.
“This is not an environment where people need to be in large groups,” he said.
McMaster saw how the virus is spreading among young people and wants to ensure that customers do not gather in crowds, said Bobby Williams, president of Lizard’s Thicket and the SC Restaurant & Lodging Association.
Many bars, Williams said, will see no point in remaining in line with these rules about seating and closing at 11pm.
“It will close them,” he said.
The restaurants, in turn, did not see the return of enough customers to overcome the rule that limits the occupation to 50%. For many, business has dropped 60% or more, Williams said, even in popular restaurants in downtown Charleston.
Brook Bristow, executive director of the South Carolina Brewers Guild and attorney for Bristow Beverage Law, sees bars facing a struggle for their square footage inside and where they can place customers outside.
For those who don’t have a lot of space, the latest seating rules may cause them to close their doors again, Bristow said.
“At some point, it becomes more expensive to be open,” he said.
Many breweries are companies that are five years old or younger and are consuming scarce capital to stay on the market, he said. Many do not have large cash reserves; instead, they take their receipts and put them back in business.
Now they are struggling to reach their customers. It is an additional challenge because the SC law limits the amount of beer customers can buy on one visit, Bristow said, and does not allow home delivery of alcoholic beverages, even on grocery orders.
Public events are currently limited to 250 people or 50 percent of a venue’s normal capacity, whichever is less. For a specific event, venues with space to host more than 250 people and observe social distance can apply for an exemption from the SC Department of Commerce, Symmes said.
There is an exemption in the governor’s last order for religious services, weddings, government events and official activities, such as school sessions.