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AccelerateSC debates amusement parks, municipality funding

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As waves of businesses invite employees and clients back into the workplace across South Carolina, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, praised the state for its strategic reopening strategy.

“You have put things in place that I think would optimize your capability of reopening,” Fauci said in response to Sen. Tim Scott’s update at the U.S. Senate COVID-19 hearing on Tuesday. As I was thinking as you were speaking, I would almost want to clone that and make sure other people can hear about that and see what you’ve been doing. … It looks like you’re ready to progress carefully because you’ve put into place a very good system.”

Gov. Henry McMaster thanked the counsel from the AccelerateSC task force his office helped compose for developing industry-specific guidelines for returning to work, which according to its original 30-day timeline, should wrap up within the next few weeks.

All four sub-groups are expected to meet next week, but there have been no announcements about disbanding the task force yet. In the meantime, the group continues to tackle a variety of issues ranging from reopened amusement parks to suspended business license penalties.

Response 

“Slowly but surely, more restaurants are beginning to open and customers are beginning to feel more comfortable,” Bobby Williams, CEO and co-owner of Lizard’s Thicket and member of the AccelerateSC Response Team, said Thursday following the reopening of dining rooms on May 11. “Every day, we’re seeing an increase. It’s worked out very nicely. We wanted it slow. From Monday through yesterday, we’ve seen a nice increase with foot traffic. It’s coming, but it’s going to be a couple more weeks until we get back to full swing.”

Williams said he expects McMaster any day now to reopen amusement and tourist attractions that enable customers to social distance in line with guidelines his team helped draft. Smaller, low-contact attractions like go-cart tracks will likely be the first to reopen, while larger theme parks  will remain on the waiting list.

On Monday, restrictions on close-contact service providers like spas and hair salons, gyms and pools will be rolled back with recommendations stemming from the response team’s sessions.

Lou Kennedy, CEO of Nephron Pharmaceuticals and fellow Response Team member, said her group pulled ideas from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, as well as regulations used by YMCA and other organizations that continued to operate throughout the shutdown. 

Kennedy also commended McMaster’s tiered approach to reopening, especially in promoting the work of essential businesses that operated through the pandemic, like Nephron. She also noted the importance of juggling both public health concerns related to the virus, economic health and mental health issues derived from both stressors.

“It’s a dichotomy, but it’s also so intermingled,” Kennedy said. “You have people who are depressed, who are out of work. That lends itself to a different kind of illness. It’s not just about COVID-19, but depression or anxiety and how do we make the economic health get pumped back up, so they can get out of those doldrums.”

Protection

Christian Soura, policy and finance vice president at the S.C. Hospital Association and a member of the Protection Team, said that as the 30-day period comes to a close, his group is working toward publishing a complete and final version of the interim report they released last week.

The report follows 14 recommendations for prevention, testing, outbreak response and adapting to meet future pandemics.

“One of the things our group is gratified by is seeing that a number of our initial recommendations we made last week actually made it into the language on testing and contact tracing that was part of that continuing resolution,” he said.

Finding the available resources for widespread, repetitive testing presents more of a concern, he said.

“The number one challenge we’re facing is just the availability of testing supplies themselves,” said Soura. “In terms of the funding, the feds have made resources available through several different congressional acts at this point to supporting testing and contract tracing activities. Certainly, there’s a little bit of legislative work to make sure the money gets to the right place, but I don’t think it’s a financial issue, at the least in the short term, so much as it is trying to get our hands on enough testing kits and getting the equipment into the right places to do the hot spot and community testing that we need.”

Governance

A number of local governments helped small businesses early on during the pandemic by suspending business license penalties and hospitality taxes, Greenville Mayor Knox White said, and now, one of his responsibilities on the governance committee is helping municipalities replenish their financial resources and address other unforeseen issues arising from the pandemic.

“We looked at some ways for creating a cushion for local governments, so that they can play that role and do their part for small businesses and for residents. That would include on the utility side, holding off on the collection of water bills, sewer bills and stuff like that, too,” he said, adding that McMaster had recently revoked water and sewer bill suspensions for municipalities.

White’s team has been working to address problems plaguing school districts due to social distancing measures. He said at least 17 school districts rely on petitions to select candidates for positions on the school board.

All issues discussed boil down to timing.

“A number of local governments, as I mentioned before, suspended business license and hospitality payments, and now the issue is when do you lift the suspension?” White said. “We will all be going through a period of adjustment, so I think you maybe want to do it in phases, and you want to allow pro-rata payments or something like that.”

Resources

“Right this minute, we’re focused on accountability, making sure that we give it to the right places and that the right places give it to the right things,” said Bob Hughes, CEO of the Hughes Development Corp. As a member of the resources committee, he is still imbedded in developing recommendations for the allocation of the $1.906 billion in the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund and $48 million educational fund.

Being one of the largest counties in the state, Greenville County received a separate $91 million payment, according to Hughes.

“All that is rife with the opportunity for people to do mischief with the money, so right now, we’re gathering detailed requests for what people want to use the money for,” he said concerning the state funds.

Dec. 30 marks the deadline for the allocation of state COVID-19 funding, but Hughes said some recipients can’t wait.

“The money needs to be committed quickly, so it can be spent," he said. "Some of it is for repaying money that has already been spent. You know, there have been many, many millions of dollars that weren’t in anybody’s budget and you need to cover that to make sure everyone is still around, the recipient is still around to spend the rest of it.”

Potential funding pool ideas have included a “mini paycheck protection program” for businesses unable to qualify for the federal program, testing and vaccine programs, broadband expansion, hospital and school systems and unemployment insurance coffers.

“We could quickly fritter this money away and not make a difference,” he said. “Our committee’s goal is to make sure we make a difference. Given the narrow list of things we can fund, we want to make sure what we do fund will propel the state forward to come out of this.”

Reach Molly Hulsey at 864-720-1223.

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