South Carolina is uncharacteristically quiet at the moment. Charleston’s normally packed restaurants are shuttered. Columbia’s Five Points area, which would be hopping with college students any other spring, is still. Even traffic along the I-85 corridor through the Greenville/Spartanburg area isn’t what it usually would be. But behind the scenes, a Herculean amount of work is taking place during the COVID-19 crisis to ensure that South Carolinians are safe and that the state’s economic engine will rev back to life when it restarts.
US Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt, and Medical University of South Carolina President Dr. David Cole gave an update on these efforts at a Womble Bond Dickinson virtual Economic Development Forum on April 30. The hour-long event was hosted by Womble Bond Dickinson attorney Stephanie Few and was streamed free to the public on the firm’s Facebook page. Few is the co-leader of Womble Bond Dickinson’s Economic Development Team and is Vice-Chair of SCBIO, the state’s alliance serving the life science industry.
More than 400,000 South Carolinians have filed for unemployment assistance since mid-March—a sharp contrast to pre-COVID-19, when unemployment rates were at record lows. Sen. Graham said the state’s economic fundamentals—its quality workforce, education and job training, and quality of life—remain solid.
“Those things still exist. We’re going to come roaring back,” he said. Even during this crisis, South Carolina’s economic development efforts remain ongoing, and a number of companies have announced business expansion projects in recent weeks.
Sen. Scott said federal leaders on both sides of the aisle have responded with uncommon unity to help businesses and citizens weather the financial impact of the crisis. Forum participants also said they realize that African-American and other minority communities have been hard-hit by the COVID-19 crisis, and they are working hard to address those issues.
“I’ve been encouraged by the response of Democrats and Republicans putting agendas aside and working for America,” Sen. Scott said. “If there’s a silver lining, that’s it.” He pointed to the quick passage of the CARES Act, an unprecedented $2 trillion relief package.
One key component of the CARES Act is the Paycheck Protection Loan Program (PPP), a forgivable business loan program aimed at helping small businesses meet employee payrolls. Both Sen. Graham and Sen. Scott said they expect Congress to authorize yet another round of federal relief funding, with particular focus on truly small companies, hospitals and rural broadband.
“One thing we’ve learned about in this crisis is how dependent we are on broadband,” Sec. Hitt said, pointing to how high-speed internet access is required for telehealth, remote learning and work-from-home activities. In South Carolina, as in many other states, rural residents may not have the same access to broadband as citizens in metro areas. “We have to attack the broadband problem in order to solve many of the other problems we have.”
State leaders also say that expanding broadband access will benefit minority communities, who disproportionately lack access to high-speed internet.
South Carolinians already have shown remarkable ingenuity and resolve in this crisis, Sec. Hitt said. With personal protective equipment, or PPE, in short supply around the country, South Carolina turned to its robust manufacturing base to help. State leaders quickly created an emergency supply collaborative of nearly 150 companies to make and source PPE, developing an in-state medical supply chain.
The state is working closely with SCBIO in these efforts, and the push to bring PPE production in-state highlights the importance of the life science industry to the state’s overall economy, Few said.
Just since mid-March, Sec. Hitt’s office has fielded literally thousands of calls from businesses seeking guidance on COVID-19 activities, and the vast majority of those were resolved within 24 hours, he said.
“In this pandemic, our strength has come through,” Gov. McMaster said. “The good news is we’ve got plenty of talent, plenty of people with ideas.”
To date, South Carolina has around 5,900 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 232 deaths as of April 30. Those numbers are lower than originally projected – which Sen. Scott said is no coincidence.
“Our social distancing protocols have been quite effective,” he said. Both South Carolina Senators agreed that the nation did not overreact to the threat of COVID-19. “I’m convinced if we had done nothing, we’d have one million to two million dead Americans,” Sen. Graham said.
In addition to the ongoing social distancing efforts, which include the partial or full closure of many businesses and activities, Sen. Graham said that other positive steps have been made just in the past few weeks.
“The drug therapies are coming,” he said, pointing to successful clinical trial results this week that the antiviral drug remdesivir shows promise in helping COVID-19 patients. “I think by next year, we will have a vaccine,” he said.
Dr. Cole said that due to efforts by the state and its people, South Carolina currently has hospital capacity. The state’s healthcare system won’t be overwhelmed as long as South Carolina can continue to “keep the care in the middle of the road.” This will require additional testing and contact tracing, he said, as businesses gradually begin to reopen. Aggressively identifying and containing COVID-19 “hot spots” are how South Carolina can return to something resembling normal.
“As we move forward, there will be more infections and we have to manage that,” Dr. Cole said.
But in addition to the economic and medical hardships, the COVID-19 crisis has been difficult emotionally for all Americans. Sen. Scott spoke of a heartbreaking conversation he had with a South Carolina woman who lost both her father and husband to the disease within a week. He said that even among so much legitimate cause for sadness, it is important for people to stay hopeful that better days are ahead.
“I am learning to be very thankful for what I have,” Sen. Scott said.
Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP does not necessarily agree with all statements made by our forum guests. The firm does not endorse or support any particular candidate for public office or any political party.