Postcard From South Carolina

I teach at a private college (four-year, Bachelor’s degree granting), in Greenville, South Carolina.

I am a University Professor of Classics at my institution (a fancy title that means that my salary does not come out of the Operating Budget), and also an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science. So I am supposed to think about language, and I am assumed to be able to count.

In January and February of 2020, we heard rumors of a pernicious virus in China. Some of my colleagues, as early as February, were pessimistic about our chances of running study-abroad programs later that Spring or in the summer.

I was insouciant. My wife, my daughter, and I flew to Germany on March 7th, 2020, to visit our son who was studying at the Freie Universität in Berlin.

While we were in Germany, all hell broke loose. Trump announced the ban on travel, and… (your readers know how that all went). When we returned, it was like the chapter “The Scouring of the Shire” in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. All of the sudden, there were all these rules.

But… skipping forward a bit, the Governor of South Carolina, Henry McMaster, has been vigorously opposed to lockdown and other restrictions.

In March, when the insanity was at its peak, he did place restrictions on restaurants, bars, and schools.

For a few weeks, my wife and I would entertain ourselves by taking a six-mile walk on a public trail to the neighboring town, to get take out tacos and beers, which we would consume sitting in the parking lot of the restaurant. As a 52 year-old, it was rejuvenating to return to a point in life when I was drinking beer in a parking lot, worried that the police might hassle me; I felt like I was 17!

Happily, in April, as the novelty wore off, our Governor McMaster lifted almost all restrictions, and our state has never looked back.

Our city (with its own rules) has a ‘mask mandate’ of sorts. It is widely disregarded.

Since May, my wife and I do our daily 3.5-mile walk in our neighbourhood, without masks, meeting and passing many of our neighbours in the process. They are not wearing masks, either. When we decide to go out on the town, which we do several times a week, we walk downtown (eight blocks) passing some people wearing masks on the sidewalk and others not wearing masks. I guess the ratio of masks to not-masks is 30:70.

We dine out several times a week. In 2020 our self-indulgence came to seem to be a virtuous civic duty, keeping our favourite places open while many potential customers cower at home.

The drill: We walk to the door of the “Swordfight Cocktail Club” (excellent!) or “Jianna” (also, excellent… get the oysters). We don our masks. We approach the host and are walked eight feet to our table. We take our masks off and never put them on again until it is time to make the 30-second walk to the door.

We are known to the servers, managers, and bartenders. They are required to be masked by local civic ordinance, but they will come chat with us in our unmasked state.

We attended a New Year’s Eve party at our favorite bar. My wife and I, sitting at the bar, struck up a conversation with a lovely young couple next to us. At the end of the evening we all embraced upon saying goodnight. That brief moment of contact with friendly strangers was like the most heady wine.

So that was nice, but passing human contact should not be so remarkable. It should be the normal diet of a sane society.

In a recent press conference, our Governor (may he live forever) said, “Some states are forcing restaurants to close, and they are even telling people that they can’t go to church, if you can believe that! South Carolina is open for business.”

Supposedly, there is a requirement to wear masks when shopping indoors. When I go to the store, there is about 70% mask-wearing. This depends on the store. The ‘outfitters’ that sell guns (Cabelas, Bass Pro Shop) are probably at 10% mask-wearing. The outfitters that focus on kayaks and energy-gels are at about 95% mask-wearing. The less-expensive grocery stores are probably at 50%. The fancy stores are at 80%.

But I have never seen any confrontation about mask-wearing.

In my morning jog (free, maskless, no cops will mess with me) I see children being delivered to our neighborhood school by busses and playing on the playground.

Evidently, the public schools have some kind of mask-mandate, but my perception from jogging past is that ‘below-nose-mask’ is the tacit standard for students and teachers alike.

My employer, a private four-year college, has many audiences to which it must play. The faculty have disappointed me in their fearful embrace of the panic-porn. The students fall into three categories: those who are scared; those who will put up with the rules to get along; and the sceptics.

My school has about 60% of its classes happening ‘in person’. 100% of the classes I teach are in person. Happily, the ‘rules’ tell me that I can wear a ‘face shield’ without a mask when teaching in a classroom. Without that exception, I doubt that I could do my job.

So, since April, we South Carolinians have been free to live our lives, more or less. There are some rules, but the always-difficult freedom-loving people of South Carolina seem free to take these rules or leave them.

And our leaders did not panic when ‘cold and flu season’ arrived, with the inevitable increase in mortality among the elderly.

I have never been more proud to be a South Carolinian.

To throw some numbers at this, I will note that South Carolina, as of 27/01/2021 and per CDC data, has 1,272 COVID-19 deaths per million citizens, lower than the national average for the USA (1,278). And we might compare our numbers to the most savagely locked-down state, Massachusettes, with its 2,057 COVID-19 deaths per million.

And, let’s preempt that argument that we always heard from the ‘lockdown states’, that “We got it early, and all those excess deaths are because… [mumble]… we got it early.” As of 26/01/2021, the daily deaths in Massachusetts and New Jersey – states that locked-down hard in early 2020, and harder in late 2020 – are identical to the daily deaths (10 per million) of South Carolina. (While, our children could go to school; our citizens could earn their livings; our citizens who were sick with something other than Covid could get treatment).

So, twice the freedom and less than half the deaths down here in South Carolina, seems like a win. The state’s motto is dum spiro, spero, “While I breath, I hope.” It seems appropriate.

The author is a Professor of Classics.

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September 2022
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