COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - On Tuesday afternoon, Columbia City Council spent hours discussing stricter measures for enforcing social distancing and preventing a spike in cases as Columbia welcomes back thousands of students.
The council said that a new curfew could be on the table in the future, but the focus during the council meeting on Tuesday afternoon was a new ordinance that would prevent house parties and large group gatherings at apartment complexes.
Mayor Steve Benjamin stressed that the council is concerned by what they’ve seen at other universities in neighboring states as they’ve reopened, and he wants students here in Columbia to do their part.
“We hope that everyone understands that our goal is not to be punitive,” Mayor Benjamin said. “But to recognize that we face a unique challenge and that as we face down this challenge, we are going to seek equitable enforcement of our rules and the Governor’s executive orders all across the city. We want our students to enjoy the uniqueness of the college experience, but we are going to make sure everyone steps up and recognizes this incredible opportunity comes great responsibility.”
Benjamin said they want to hold renters, neighbors, and community members accountable for reporting violations of Governor Henry McMaster’s executive order of no large group gatherings.
The council had the first reading of an ordinance that would amend the city code to make renters accountable for tenants holding large group gatherings. The new ordinance would make it a serious offense for renters to allow large group gatherings to happen. Council said the renters could lose their permits if they are found violating the ordinance more than twice.
“We’ve seen some challenges in Georgia, North Carolina, and Alabama, we’ve been reading about them and we just want to make sure we are doing everything we can to continue the decrease in cases we’ve seen,” Mayor Benjamin said.
It’s something many council members agree with.
“What you have seen is large parties, and people congregating, and then you see the numbers tick up with an outbreak,” At-large Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said. “I think it’s unrealistic to believe we won’t see an increase in numbers with school starting and students coming back.”
In addition to an ordinance aimed at cutting down on house parties, the council is also requesting Governor McMaster extend his “last call” executive order which mandates that all bars and restaurants serving alcoholic beverages stop serving at 11 p.m. Mayor Benjamin said if that order expires, Columbia City council could be enacting a new curfew of its own.
Mayor Steve Benjamin and council members say they are working with U of SC, as well as other colleges in the Columbia area to make sure both on-campus and off-campus activities aren’t causing outbreaks.
Councilwoman Devine said nothing is off the table at this point, with stricter mask enforcement and a new curfew potentially coming in the future.
“How do we continue to educate? Young people are going to want to be around each other, they are going to want to hang out, they are not going to necessarily think it’s serious for them, but we do know that COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate”
Councilwoman Devine said their goal has always been to educate and encourage, and she doesn’t want to see the Council to enact a criminal offense for violating one of the city’s ordinances. She said that if it comes to enforcement, she would like it to be a civil offense or a violation of the code of conduct at the universities.
Mayor Benjamin stressed that it’s not to punish students, but rather to keep people safe given what the council has been seeing at universities in North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama
During the council meeting, Mayor Steve Benjamin and the Columbia City Council also passed on a resolution to declare Juneteenth as a holiday. Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform the enslaved they were free and the Civil War was over.