S.C. beaches fill, but virus takes no va­ca­tion

Vir­ginia, other states on alert as of­fi­cials trace in­fec­tions back to coastal lo­ca­tions

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY JEF­FREY COLLINS

MYR­TLE BEACH, S.C. — The el­e­va­tor doors opened, and in­side were 10 peo­ple crammed into a space no big­ger than a closet, none of them wear­ing a mask.

In bathing suits, they walked out of the ho­tel, across the pool deck and into the sand in what is fast be­com­ing South Carolina’s hot spot for

COVID-19 — Myr­tle Beach. Peo­ple in this re­sort city are leav­ing their cares — and some­times their face cov­er­ings — at home af­ter months of worry as ho­tels, restau­rants and beaches re­open.

Mark John­son said he doesn’t like wear­ing a mask when he’s at work de­liv­er­ing dough­nuts to

gro­cery stores around Char­lotte, N.C. “Just wash your hands and use com­mon sense,” John­son said as he sat on a chair in the sand, a can of beer in his

cup holder.

The coro­n­avirus has not taken a va­ca­tion. When ho­tels were al­lowed to start tak­ing reser­va­tions again on May 15, there had been 283 COVID-19 cases in Horry County, which in­cludes Myr­tle Beach. By June 22, that num­ber had climbed to more than 2,000, and in­fec­tions had dou­bled in nine days.

And those num­bers in­clude only peo­ple who live in the county. The fig­ures do not count any­one who tests pos­i­tive af­ter tak­ing COVID-19 home along with a sou­venir her­mit crab or an air­brushed T-shirt. Busi­ness lead­ers es­ti­mate 20 mil­lion peo­ple visit the area each year, 60 times Horry County’s pop­u­la­tion of about 330,000.

It was un­clear how many vis­i­tors could be ex­pected in 2020. In

April, just 3% of ho­tel rooms, con­do­mini­ums and camp­sites in Horry County were rented, ac­cord­ing to re­search from Coastal Carolina Univer­sity. By mid-June, oc­cu­pancy rates re­bounded to 74%, only slightly less than the typ­i­cal 81% at this point in the sum­mer, the col­lege re­ported.

Health of­fi­cials in at least five West Vir­ginia coun­ties de­ter­mined through con­tact trac­ing that trips to Myr­tle Beach likely led to in­fec­tions. They rec­om­mend find­ing safer des­ti­na­tions or self-quar­an­tin­ing for two weeks af­ter a trip.

“Please be care­ful. And please think real hard about get­ting tested when you get home,” West Vir­ginia Gov. Jim Jus­tice told peo­ple who vis­ited Myr­tle Beach. “If you would opt to go to one of our state parks or do some­thing in this great place in West Vir­ginia, we’d rather you do that.”

Ar­eas in Vir­ginia also are track­ing in­fec­tions back to the South Carolina coast.

“Myr­tle Beach seems to be a hot spot,” said

Dr. Molly O’Dell with the Vir­ginia De­part­ment of Health, who is lead­ing the pan­demic re­sponse for the Roanoke and Al­leghany Health Dis­tricts.

Twenty-seven peo­ple in the four-county area have tested pos­i­tive for the virus in the past two weeks af­ter re­turn­ing home from the pop­u­lar South Carolina tourist spot, O’Dell said Tues­day. Five more cases were listed as prob­a­ble.

The Health De­part­ment is rec­om­mend­ing that any­one who has been to Myr­tle Beach — which has seen a spike in cases as more peo­ple re­sume their nor­mal life­styles — self-quar­an­tine for 14 days.

Christy Kasler is from an­other state that pro­duces many Myr­tle Beach vis­i­tors — Ohio. As she sat in a chair and watched her daugh­ter-in-law play with her 11-month-old grand­son on his first trip to the beach, she said the rec­om­men­da­tion to self-quar­an­tine when she re­turns to her Nel­sonville home was ask­ing too much.

“If I get it, I could have just as eas­ily got it back home,” Kasler said. “You can’t live your life in fear.”

Horry County isn’t South Carolina’s only hot spot. Health of­fi­cials are track­ing virus clus­ters in the Latino com­mu­nity around Greenville, restau­rant work­ers in Charleston, ru­ral churches that re­turned to ser­vices and large fam­ily gath­er­ings.

When Gov. Henry McMaster ef­fec­tively closed the state at the start of April, the rate of new cases flat­tened out. It started climb­ing again af­ter re­open­ing be­gan in early May, and the rate keeps ris­ing. South Carolina now has the fourth­high­est new in­fec­tion rate in the na­tion when ad­justed for pop­u­la­tion, trail­ing just Ari­zona, Arkansas and Alabama.

The state sets records al­most daily for the num­ber of new cases, the per­cent­age of pos­i­tive tests and the num­ber of peo­ple in the hospi­tal with COVID-19.

Since re­open­ing six weeks ago, the mes­sage from both lo­cal and state gov­ern­ments in South Carolina shifted from shut­downs to per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity, like wash­ing hands and wear­ing masks, although McMaster has said he will not re­quire face cov­er­ings.

Af­ter giv­ing tele­vised COVID-19 brief­ings nearly every day when the virus first started to spread, McMaster and state health of­fi­cials have not spo­ken in front of cam­eras for more than a week. When they do talk, they say shut­ting busi­nesses again is out of the ques­tion.

“We un­der­stand that what we’re con­tin­u­ing to ask of ev­ery­one is not easy and that many are tired of hear­ing the same warn­ings and of tak­ing the same daily pre­cau­tions, but this virus does not take a day off,” state epi­demi­ol­o­gist Dr. Linda Bell said in a state­ment.

Myr­tle Beach needs vis­i­tors. In­stead of a shut­down, the com­mu­nity now fears that bad pub­lic­ity could keep peo­ple away. That would be ter­ri­ble news af­ter restau­rants and many ho­tels were closed for two months.

From Fe­bru­ary to April, more than 1 in 4 work­ers lost their jobs, and nearly 45,000 jobs dis­ap­peared in the Myr­tle Beach area, vault­ing Horry County to the top of South Carolina job­less rate, ac­cord­ing to un­em­ploy­ment fig­ures.

Some of those busi­nesses re­main closed. Oth­ers that re­opened are strug­gling with the ex­tra cost of clean­ing, food and other sup­plies, and the re­duc­tion in rev­enue be­cause they can­not ac­com­mo­date as many cus­tomers un­der so­ciald­is­tanc­ing rules.

“Man, at this point I’m just praying we get back to nor­mal. I want to keep peo­ple healthy, but busi­nesses are hurt­ing too,” Myr­tle Beach City Coun­cil­man Michael Chest­nut said out­side his restau­rant, Big Mike’s Soul Food.

He paused and shook his head. “I’m not sure what nor­mal is ever go­ing to look like,” Chest­nut said.

The Myr­tle Beach City Coun­cil ini­tially im­posed a limit of three peo­ple per el­e­va­tor when adopt­ing rules to re­open ho­tels. But in a place where the ocean­front sky­line is dom­i­nated by tall ho­tels, it was im­prac­ti­cal to make peo­ple climb all those stairs or wait for an empty el­e­va­tor, Chest­nut said.

Jacko Morowitz has run a gift shop some­where in Myr­tle Beach for more than 25 years. He thought about putting a sign on the door re­quir­ing masks and ask­ing cus­tomers to cover their mouth and nose when in­side.

But he bought $100,000 of mer­chan­dise last win­ter for his Good Vibes

Gift Shop, and the in­ven­tory just sat there for two months. He fig­ures he can’t risk turn­ing a sin­gle cus­tomer away by push­ing masks.

Asked what might hap­pen if sud­denly peo­ple get scared of the virus and stop com­ing to Myr­tle Beach, Morowitz blurted out “we’re” fol­lowed by an ex­ple­tive.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “But that’s the best word I can use whether I get sick or ev­ery­body stays home.”

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A sign in Myr­tle Beach, S.C., ad­vised peo­ple walk­ing to­ward the ocean Thurs­day to main­tain so­cial dis­tanc­ing.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Christy Kasler (cen­ter) of Ohio en­joyed a day at the beach on Thurs­day as her daugh­ter-in-law Cory played with her grand­son, Bent­ley, at Myr­tle Beach, S.C.

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