COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Beleaguered city and hospital leaders in the region of South Carolina hardest hit by the coronavirus rebuked residents who plan to party in large crowds for New Year's Eve as completely full hospitals have already reached a breaking point Tuesday.
In the Upstate, where COVID-19 infection rates continue to outpace every other part of South Carolina, some event organizers are still selling tickets to New Year's Eve celebrations. Greenville officials said Tuesday they had received multiple complaints from residents about the planned festivities, adding that city has denied several requests for special permits to hold large events.
“It's horribly unfair and irresponsible to the men and women in the health care community, the nurses and doctors who are fighting this on the front lines," Greenville Mayor Knox White told reporters.
Greenville law enforcement officials say they will be patrolling downtown on New Year’s Eve to ensure people and businesses are complying with state regulations. Though Gov. Henry McMaster has lifted most of the restrictions he implemented since the start of the outbreak, there remains a ban on alcohol sales in restaurants and bars after 11 p.m.
There is also an executive order that caps the size of gatherings to 250 people or 50% of regular occupancy limits, though the Department of Commerce can approve exceptions.
The governor’s office released a statement Tuesday defending how the state has kept businesses open “due to the reasonable and measured actions that have been taken.”
Still, with the end of the year approaching, McMaster acknowledged that “South Carolinians know what to do to limit the virus’ spread." But he said in a statement that "there are indications that folks may be letting their guard down as it relates to large gatherings."
Data from the Department of Commerce shows the agency has approved nearly 1,500 events — both indoor and outdoor — between August 2020 through November 2021. A handful of those approved events are scheduled New Year's Eve celebrations, from a countdown on a World War II aircraft carrier in Charleston to a “Southern Times Square” gathering in Myrtle Beach.
Still, some regular celebrations are moving to the virtual stage, like the Famously Hot New Year bash in Columbia. The event's live concerts, toasts from local celebrities and fireworks displays are moving to a livestream, with organizers providing champagne poppers and party horns for celebrants to ring in 2021 from their own homes.
Another planned in-person event, The Reedy River Grand Ball in Greenville, didn't receive an exemption from the Department of Commerce, The Greenville News reported, drawing ire from other Upstate residents before organizers canceled it Tuesday.
Wendell James, chief clinical officer at Prisma Health-Upstate, said it was appalling that people would be willing to put on large functions amid a pandemic.
“It is irresponsible to hold such an event, period,” James said Tuesday. “There will be people that die because of it.”
“We’re not here crying wolf," he added.
On Tuesday, state health officials reported 2,208 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 22 additional deaths; the state has seen a total of 277,563 confirmed cases and 4,804 deaths since the start of the outbreak. Health officials say the state is now surpassing its last spike of cases over the summer.
Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases in South Carolina has increased by 313.3, an increase of 10.9%, according to data from Johns Hopkins.
The state also continues to receive and administer COVID-19 vaccines for frontline health care workers and those living and working in long-term care facilities. As of Tuesday, the state had received a total of 112,125 doses, with 31,511 doses already administered. Officials say it will take months to get most South Carolinians vaccinated and that people should continue to follow public health guidelines like wearing masks and social distancing in the meantime.
Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.
Michelle Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.