Charleston City Council has passed an emergency ordinance ordering all residents to stay home and all nonessential businesses to close for the next two weeks.
The ordinance goes into effect Thursday. Essential businesses are defined based on parameters (.pdf) from the Department of Homeland Security and include health care operations; grocery stores; restaurants offering to-go food; news media; financial institutions; construction; defense operations; essential infrastructure and manufacturing operations; and other essential services necessary to maintain the safety and sanitation of the community.
Mayor John Tecklenburg said residents should leave their homes only for essential services such as grocery shopping and for exercise.
“Modeling ... shows that Charleston is facing thousands of deaths — most of them unnecessary — if we don’t stop the spread of this virus and prevent our local hospital systems from being overwhelmed, and that’s beginning to occur,” Tecklenburg said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “This moment — with the pandemic still in the earliest part of the acceleration phase — is our last and best chance to keep that tragedy from happening here in the city of Charleston.”
Tecklenburg and Police Chief Luther Reynolds said that the city is asking for voluntary compliance with the ordinance, but Reynolds said police will be enforcing it if necessary.
“We anticipate in 99% of the cases having compliance, voluntary compliance, and working with us,” he said.
During the news conference, Tecklenburg implored residents and businesses to comply.
“This is as serious as a heart attack. This is a life-and-death situation for our citizens,” he said, almost shouting into the microphone. “And we control our destiny with the spread of this disease right now.”
Tecklenburg said it’s imperative that Charleston not wait until the state sees thousands of COVID-19 cases.
“That’s what’s happened in other parts of the country,” he said. “Frankly, I think they waited a little too long.”
Tecklenburg said the city may consider a curfew if voluntary compliance is unsuccessful.
City Council voted 9-4 to approve the ordinance, with Councilwoman Marie Delcioppo of District 1 and Councilmen Keith Waring of District 7, Mike Seekings of District 8 and Harry Griffin of District 10 dissenting.
Seekings argued that the list of essential businesses was too broad, while Waring said the order should close businesses only for a week. Griffin and Delcioppo both said they felt the city was jumping the gun ahead of what Gov. Henry McMaster was asking residents and businesses to do; Delcioppo said without unified support from surrounding local governments, the ordinance would be difficult to enforce.
City Council also deferred passage of an agreement that would have taken $4 million from a settlement agreement with the Charleston Citywide Local Development Corp. in order to provide short-term loans to small businesses.
Most council members agreed that the concept of providing loans to small businesses was good but said the source of the funding was flawed because money from the settlement is meant to be used for affordable housing in the city.
The matter will be taken up at an emergency meeting of the Community Development Committee in the next few days.
A proposal that would have allowed boards and commissions such as the Planning Commission, the Board of Architectural Review and the Board of Zoning Appeals to meet virtually was also deferred over concerns that it wouldn’t allow citizens to participate in the same way they can during in-person meetings.
Jacob Lindsey, planning director for the city of Charleston, had argued that without the proposal, the city would have to shut down its boards for an indefinite period of time and cancel previously scheduled hearings, depriving the public of a basic service of the planning department.
City Council plans to meet telephonically every evening to receive updates on COVID-19 and approve any emergency measures, including a revised small business loan agreement and a revised virtual boards and commissions meeting proposal.