SC lets beaches reopen; leaders struggle with safety or fun
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Some beaches in South Carolina reopened Tuesday with mayors and other leaders enthusiastically telling people to soak in the sun while being careful and continuing coronavirus precautions like social distancing.
But other beach towns took a more cautious approach, citing federal guidelines for determining whether the spread of the virus had slowed that have not yet been met in South Carolina.
Gov. Henry McMaster on Monday turned over the decision to open public access points to South Carolina beaches to local governments as of noon Tuesday. People with property on the beach have been able to enjoy the sand and water. Hotels along the coast remained closed to tourists.
People flocked immediately to some beaches. At Surfside Beach, south of Myrtle Beach, a SCETV camera captured dozens of people sunbathing and walking along the edge of the surf as a Horry County Police vehicle patrolled. Other live beach cameras showed less crowded beaches.
Part of the struggle for local governments is determining where South Carolina is in terms of the pandemic’s spread. State health officials quietly changed their estimate of the peak over the weekend from April 30 to sometime the week before.
But while the number of new COVID-19 cases from April 12 to April 19 dropped by nearly 17% in South Carolina, the number of coronavirus tests done over that same period fell more than 27%, according to data from the Department of Health and Environmental Control.
More than 4,600 COVID-19 cases and at least 135 deaths have been reported statewide, according to DHEC’s Tuesday update. It was a significant rise of more than 170 cases and 11 deaths from the update the day before.
For most people, the coronavirus that caused this year’s pandemic causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause severe illness such as pneumonia, or even death.
Once the governor gave them permission, North Myrtle Beach didn’t hesitate to open its beach back to the public.
Mayor Marilyn Hatley said the decision was made so “people can enjoy some much-needed sun and recreation along our nine miles of beach.”
But she said reopening the beach only works if people are responsible by staying 6 feet (2 meters) apart, following existing statewide emergency rules banning groups of three or more outside immediate families and don’t play group games like volleyball.
Horry County also opened its beaches at noon Tuesday. Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head Island and many beaches around Charleston will remain closed.
Georgetown County Council met online an hour before McMaster’s reopening order went into effect, voting 5-2 to keep its beaches closed in a meeting that was a microcosm of debates going on across the coast.
Council member Steve Goggins supported reopening beaches, saying if McMaster thought it was OK “why do we think we know more than the governor?”
Council member Raymond Newton said businesses that rely on beach traffic were dying a slow death.
“If you’re not going to get the virus at the grocery store or some of the other places that are open, I doubt you are going to get them at a windy beach,” Newton said.
But the majority of Georgetown County Council members said they felt like the safety of citizens was more important at the moment than the economy, especially since South Carolina hadn’t seen the 14 days of declining positive tests the federal government recommends before loosening restrictions.
“In this situation, I tend to listen to people with knowledge,” council member Lillie Jean Johnson said.
Also on Tuesday, the state Forestry Commission lifted a two-week ban on outdoor burning put in effect to prevent wildfires that could tax firefighters and prevent smoke that could make breathing problems worse for COVID-19 patients.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.