After "educational" phase, Charleston police enforcing orders closing restaurant dining rooms over the coronavirus

Orders limit gatherings, ban indoor and outdoor dining


Sam Spence

After giving Charleston restaurants and bars a chance to adjust to orders closing dining rooms statewide to stop the spread of the coronavirus as the number of cases continues to rise, police in Charleston are now cracking down on businesses skirting Gov. Henry McMaster's public health mandate.

Restaurant operators were frustrated earlier this week after seeing several local establishments that seemed to be trying to avoid an executive order by McMaster on Tuesday stopping dine-in service in restaurants statewide.

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In a group text message this week, Recovery Room and Bangkok Lounge owner Chris "Boston" Dimattia says he counted more than 40 Charleston businesses accused of allowing guests to dine in.

"I talked to an employee setting up the chairs on the patio and he said they were open," Dimattia said after stopping by a downtown barbecue restaurant.

Restaurants and bars are only able to serve patrons via take out and delivery, with dine-in service strictly forbidden under McMaster's order, which remains in effect until March 31. Throughout the area, many restaurants have attempted to retain what business they can by setting up temporary take-away counters outside their restaurants.

In Charleston, city police say they have moved into a new phase of enforcement.

"When the order came down from the Governor’s Office, we began with an educational approach when violations were observed by our officers or when we received complaints," Charles Francis, public information officer for the Charleston Police Department told the City Paper on Friday.

"The main question was outdoor seating on premises, which is not allowed. We believe that we have given everyone ample notification of the order and will enforce the order as instructed by the Governor’s Office."

A letter sent by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to all licensed retail food establishments in S.C. outlined the rules clearly, according to a member of the S.C. State Emergency Response Team.

"To facilitate social distancing, restaurants and bars can no longer provide sit down dining. This applies to both indoor and outdoor dining areas … Patrons may come into the facility to place orders. However, to promote social distancing, we are encouraging that orders be taken via phone, online or at a service window," the letter reads in part.

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Members of Charleston City Council also reiterated the rules in a new emergency ordinance passed Thursday night that limit gatherings to 10 people and specifically ban dine-in service both inside and out.

Councilmember Jason Sakran, who represents parts of downtown and West Ashley, has also heard about the accused scofflaws.

"I've instructed folks to contact the police if they see this activity," says Sakran, who is the co-owner of Bon Banh Mi. "The ordinance is regulated by the law, so there are consequences."

The problem for the city in upholding McMaster's mandate is the sheer number of restaurants in Charleston. "The police are doing a great job regulating this, but we have hundreds of restaurants in Charleston," says Sakran. "I will say that the large majority of them are following the rules."

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In South Carolina, 125 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed by DHEC, with 45 new cases reported on Friday alone, the highest one-day increase since the epidemic began. Three deaths have been reported, all older people who contracted COVID-19, including one in Charleston County, DHEC says.

For Dimattia, the actions of the small percentage who aren't is a disservice to the countless restaurant employees who now find themselves jobless. "I feel annoyed that some businesses don't feel the need to close," says Dimattia. "I hope these places realize how short-sighted they are being."

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