The public can get back on the sand immediately in Myrtle Beach and they might be able to rent a room by Friday.
The Myrtle Beach City Council met via teleconference on Tuesday, taking up several COVID-19 related issues including allowing the hotels to reopen along with the public beach accesses.
But the council tweaked an order about opening short-term rentals, or hotels and motels, not settling on a final decision. The council agreed to meet again at 10 a.m. Thursday to vote on opening short-term rentals again. And the council may be giving a timeline on when the city’s parks can reopen at the Thursday meeting.
The city’s 138 public beach accesses and 74 adjacent public parking lots are open, City Manager John Pedersen said Tuesday. He said if people walk past the barricades to get to the beach, they won’t be punished.
Previously the city had closed the public beach accesses and parking lots on March 31, per an order from Gov. Henry McMaster, making the beach only accessible through private property.
McMaster had originally ordered all public beach accesses and boat ramps be closed statewide at the end of March, but on April 16 he allowed public boat ramps and adjacent parking areas to open. On April 20, he ordered that local jurisdictions may open beaches.
Horry County and North Myrtle Beach opened the beach accesses and parking areas on April 21 with social distancing restrictions. Surfside Beach opened the town’s beach accesses and parking with an added restriction of all beachgoers must be moving while on the beach.
Myrtle Beach’s public beach accesses and adjacent parking lots had remained closed until the Tuesday meeting.
The beach advisory committee met on Friday, April 24, and agreed to recommend the city council reopen the beach in what they’ve called “baby steps” moving toward reopening for the summer season.
Pedersen warned that lifeguards are not on duty at this time so “swim at your own risk.”
A resident emailed a question to council questioning the contradiction of the city opening to vacationers while the residents are restricted to a “home or work” order from McMaster.
Councilman Gregg Smith chimed in after city attorney Will Bryan agreed there is a contradiction.
“The governor’s home or work order is pretty vague. It includes for recreation and I was under the impression recreation was active movement,” Smith said. “But, further investigation, recreation can be reading a book. It’s pretty much anything that’s not work. So, while we’re under a home and work order, and I think everyone should stay home or work, the governor’s home or work order does not have a whole lot of effect.”
As for when the hotels and resorts will reopen, the council agreed the current order keeping them shuttered expires on Thursday so they are faced with an option of letting it expire and essentially returning to business as usual with an added restriction from McMaster of not allowing guests from COVID-19 “hot spots” such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and New Orleans. The other option is to extend the order with limitations.
Pedersen had proposed to allow for short term rentals to operate at a maximum of 15% occupancy from May 1 to May 15 with a steady increase in occupancy rates of 50% May 16 to May 31 and 75% cap June 1 through June 15. After June 15, according to the proposal, there would not be a cap. The proposal also included having the hotels undergo staff training and monitor each team member for symptoms as well as complying with sanitation guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Pedersen also called for the creation of a 13-member Coronavirus Recovery Task Force that would include three city residents representing the north, south and center part of the city in addition to a medical provider, the city’s police and fire chiefs, owners or managers of hotels, restaurants and retail businesses. The task force would also include a chamber representative and the owner or manager of an amusement or attraction business.
The task force responsibilities would include recommending to city council phases of recovery while eyeing health and economic conditions.
Councilman Mike Lowder, with a nod from the rest of the council, asked that the order be returned to them on Thursday to exclude the percentage requirements and not to threaten to revoke a business license as a penalty for businesses that don’t comply with the city’s order.
Smith, agreeing with reservations, added his own warning to the public.
“I know we all want to get back to normal,” he said of the future normal being different than the past given there is no cure for COVID-19 and the city’s efforts in closing hotels and the public beach access was designed to keep the hospitals from being overwhelmed. “While we may be opening things up, I would suggest to anyone who’s listening continue to socially distance, continue to stay home. If you don’t have to come to Myrtle Beach, don’t come to Myrtle Beach. If you want to just get out and party, don’t come to Myrtle Beach. We’ve got people that are scared. We’ve got people that are nervous both for their health and for their financial wherewithal. It’s such a delicate balance.”
The city’s emergency management director, Bruce Arnell, said the area hospitals were not overwhelmed with a high mark of 70% admissions on April 4, although the admissions do not distinguish virus patients from other patients. He added the county is not on the top of the list for areas to receive ramped up COVID-19 testing as other areas in the state have cases climbing at a higher rate than Horry County.
As of Tuesday, the state reported 5,613 COVID-19 cases with 177 deaths. Horry County has had 209 cases with 12 deaths.
Early in the meeting, Mayor Brenda Bethune thanked the city residents and business community for being “strong, resilient, patient and compassionate” in the five-plus weeks since the city began dealing with the COVID-19 issues.
“I know that none of us signed up for this,” she turned her comments to city council members. “We never saw this coming. Hopefully there won’t be another pandemic for the next 100 years. This has not been an easy situation.”