Columbia mayor says mandatory citywide curfew is in place to save lives

Updated: Mar. 18, 2020 at 9:31 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - State and city leaders across the country have declared states of emergencies, with many invoking “shelter-in-place” laws or curfews to help fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.

On Wednesday night, a citywide mandatory curfew takes effect here in Columbia at 11 p.m.

This is only the second time a curfew has been used in the city. It was also invoked during the 2015 floods, when entire neighborhoods were left empty, but Mayor Steve Benjamin said it’s necessary now as the city faces the growing threat of the coronavirus.

Popular areas in Columbia, like Five Points and The Vista, normally see a constant stream of shoppers and restaurant goers every night.

But the new curfew says no one is supposed to be out between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. It applies to everyone except for those going to work or having a medical emergency.

“We want people to go home, we want people to practice social distancing norms,” Benjamin said.

The mayor said the goal is to save lives in the face of the growing threat of the coronavirus.

“We’ve got to do more, and we’ve got to do more now,” Benjamin said. “Time is not our friend, time is our enemy, and we have to act with a sense of urgency.”

This comes just one day after Gov. Henry McMaster ordered all restaurants and bars close their doors to dine-in customers and only offer take-out and deliveries.

“And on the local level we started to see some reports of -- even if the restaurants and bars are shut down, there would be a number of house parties,” Benjamin said.

The mayor said this curfew erases that potential issue, because no one can be out unless they are going to work, but the 11 p.m. curfew still allows restaurants time to make deliveries.

“We are asking our law enforcement to be smart and thoughtful and judicious as they engage with citizens who might be out during these hours -- but make no doubt this ordinance will be enforced,” Benjamin said.

Columbia Police Deputy Chief Melron Kelly said the maximum penalty for violating curfew is a $500 fine or up to 30 days in jail.

“That’s the absolute worst case scenario,” he said. “You will probably get warned one, two, maybe even three times just to make sure they are adhering to the curfew.”

The first priority of Columbia Police, he said, is to educate residents about the curfew and keep everyone safe.

The curfew expires in 61 days, but Benjamin said the Columbia City Council could choose to repeal it sooner if the threat of the coronavirus slows down.

Some governors around the country have implemented statewide curfews. McMaster has not.

Also, some cities like San Francisco have taken more extreme measures such as ordering citizens to shelter-in-place. At this time, there’s no word of any possibility of something like that in South Carolina, but health officials in Charlotte have said they are considering a shelter-in-place if cases of COVID-19 continue to increase.

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