Fearful of negative publicity, Horry County Council on Tuesday opted not to extend the county’s state of emergency for the COVID-19 crisis.
But county officials do plan to continue some of the service changes they implemented in response to the new coronavirus, even as the Grand Strand economy begins to reopen.
“This thing is not going away,” councilman Al Allen said. “We can’t stay in a state of emergency continuously. We’ve got to step up and we’ve got to lead. … We cannot stick our heads in the sand. We cannot yell ‘Chicken Little, the sky is falling.’ This county has faced a lot worse than this.”
What exactly the council will do remains unclear. After nearly 90 minutes of debate Tuesday, council members decided to revisit the issue in another meeting Wednesday morning.
The state of emergency declaration – which expires at noon Wednesday – gives county staff flexibility in providing services and purchasing equipment. For example, the policy allows the county to close public facilities, waive fees for some online services and relax procurement policies to purchase needed items. However, semantics concerned most council members. They don't want the words "state of emergency" associated with Horry County.
“We need to send a message to the public that we’re open for business,” councilman Tyler Servant said.
Councilman Gary Loftus agreed.
“I don’t see the need for this,” he said of the state of emergency. “My concern is the perception of the public. That’s what I’m very worried about.”
But some county officials agreed with county staff, saying concerns about public health should trump fears about public relations.
“Removing the state of emergency will impede the policies and procedures that we put in place to protect the public and our employees,” councilman Dennis DiSabato said. “I don’t think we should be confusing reopening the economy with getting rid of the state of emergency. They are two totally separate things. … I agree with what the governor is doing. I think we need to start getting business flowing again. We need to start allowing our constituents to get back to some sense of normal. However, at the same time, we do have a duty to protect our employees and we do have a duty to protect the public. And I think this state of emergency is just another tool in the toolbox to help us do that. And it does not make any sense to me to take any tools out of the toolbox while this thing is still going on.”
When it became clear the staff’s request to extend the state of emergency didn’t have enough votes to pass, county attorney Arrigo Carotti proposed the council take a different approach, one that would not declare a state of emergency but would provide some of the same benefits. He said the council could not relax procurement regulations this way, but county leaders could direct the administrator to waive fees for electronic services — thus encouraging online transactions rather than in-person ones — and gradually reopen public facilities.
However, Allen stressed that county staff need to provide a plan for reopening county buildings and restarting services quickly.
“They’ve had 60 days of down time on this,” he said. “I would like to see them bring back a planned opening and to have our public facilities open to the public within the next 10 days.”
The council will meet again at 10 a.m. Wednesday.