- Associated Press - Saturday, July 4, 2020

LEXINGTON, S.C. (AP) - After months of planning, Lexington County Blowfish co-owner Bill Shanahan expected to welcome spectators to Wednesday night’s Coastal Plain League summer baseball season opener.

Instead, two hours before first pitch, a comment by Gov. Henry McMaster ensured that the stadium gates would remain closed.

With 1,497 new cases of COVID-19 reported in South Carolina on Wednesday - and more than than 26,000 new cases since June 1 - McMaster said he would not lift restrictions on spectator sports, concerts, movie theaters and other gatherings banned by an executive order he made in March. When asked specifically about the Blowfish and the team’s plans to play in front of fans, McMaster responded:

“Spectator sports are not allowed under the existing executive order. Those who violate those lawful orders, there will be consequences of some kind.”

By the time those comments reached the Lexington County Blowfish Stadium, a handful of fans had already gathered outside of the ballpark anticipating that gates would open at 6 p.m. and the game would start at 7.

Shanahan informed the fans just before 6 that they would not be allowed to enter the facility until the Blowfish received clarification from the governor’s office. At 6:45, 15 minutes before first pitch, Shanahan stepped through the front gate, held up his phone and read the reply he had received from the governor’s office, stating that the Blowfish were not categorized as an essential business and that fans would not be allowed to enter.

“So, folks, that’s what we just got,” Shanahan said, after reading from his phone. “Please forgive us. I know all of you have tickets. Just give me a couple of days to figure out what we’re going to do, all right?”

Most of the 30 to 40 fans gathered around Shanahan responded by applauding, then scattered back to their cars. Many stayed on the outskirts of the facility and watched the game from the parking lot and from a grassy field beyond the outfield wall. Two of those spectators, Tom and Lisa Levins, flew down from Pennsylvania just to see their son, Tatem, play for the Blowfish.

“If I’m here for the weekend and I can’t see baseball, I may as well drive home,” Tom said. “We heard about a month ago we were going to play. … And we thought everything had been so out in the open that it wouldn’t suddenly be a surprise. I mean, they’re not even mandating people to wear masks (in South Carolina).”

The game, a 14-2 win over the Bomb Island Bombers, was supposed to be the first of a truncated 40-game season for the Blowfish. As of now, Shanahan said the plan is to play the remaining three games of this week’s homestand, with or without fans. Ultimately, he said, the organization needs fans to be able to play through the remainder of the season.

“We’re a small business,” said Shanahan, who co-owns the team with his wife, Vicki. “We’re trying to stay alive, too. We’re trying to provide family entertainment cost-affordably, in a very safe and cautious manner. But we have leaders, and those leaders, we have to follow what they say. They’re there for a reason. We’ll just take it one day at a time and see what we can do.”

The Lexington County Recreation and Aging Commission owns the Blowfish facility, and Shanahan said the Blowfish had been following that commission’s guidelines, which stated that practices could begin June 15 and games could be played July 1.

In addition, Shanahan and the Blowfish put together an extensive plan for COVID-19 stadium safety guidelines. On Wednesday, two-thirds of the stadium’s 2,400 seats were marked off by tape to create safe distance between groups of spectators. Multiple signs outside and inside the stadium recommended six feet of social distance and wearing masks for safety. Every employee at the park was wearing a mask, and there were hand-sanitizing stations and sneeze guards throughout the facility.

There was a temperature check table in place at the front gate that would turn away any fan with a temperature above 100.4 degrees.

“I’ll say one thing: We had this thing down to a ‘T’ regarding safety, social distancing, limited capacity, face masks from every employee, recommendations for face masks for fans, so it’s all there,” Shanahan said. “But we hear an hour before.”

Shanahan compared the Blowfish, a collegiate summer league team, to youth travel ball, which was allowed to resume play June 15 with or without fans, thanks to a late May executive order by McMaster.

McMaster confirmed Wednesday, through a spokesman, that “youth sports have been allowed to open.”

“We’re no different than the youth travel ball across the street,” said Shanahan, referencing the travel baseball teams that frequent the adjacent Ball Park Road Rec Complex. “They had 1,000 or so people or more. Hundreds of teams were playing in Lexington County this weekend.”

However, because the Lexington County Blowfish is also a business enterprise, different rules may apply. Thousands of businesses in South Carolina have asked for exemptions the last three months to be declared “essential” and to be allowed to be open. The Blowfish did not seek such an exemption, Department of Commerce spokeswoman Alex Clark told The State.

At 66 years old, Shanahan said he recognizes the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and is cautious about his own safety as well as the safety of the Blowfish players, staff and fans. The sporting world remains in flux throughout the country. While Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League have plans in place to play their 2020 season, Minor League Baseball announced Tuesday that it would cancel its season. And McMaster said Wednesday that if the coronavirus case numbers don’t improve, there won’t be high school or college football in South Carolina.

Shanahan told fans Wednesday that he was going to look into how to submit a request for allowing spectators and hopes to receive permission as soon as Thursday night’s game against the Lake Murray Purple Martins. Otherwise, Shanahan and the Blowfish could have a difficult decision to make in regard to the current season.

“We’re going to look at every angle,” Shanahan said. “I’m going to be talking to different people to find out, ‘What do we do? How do we resubmit? What is it that they’re looking for? Did we miss something?’

“I’ve been doing this for 35 years, owning and operating baseball teams. And 2020 is the most challenging year, I think, for all of us.”

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