Just before 2:30 Thursday afternoon, the management of the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove met with their staff.
They needed to talk about the coronavirus.
Owner Buz Plyler and general manager Michelle Kerscher wanted workers to know they would get a paycheck as long as the store had business — they just didn’t know how long that would be.
“It is scary,” Kerscher said. “We don’t really know. We’re in the world of the unknown here.”
Statewide, unemployment claims rose by 400% this week. The S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce received 4,000 calls on Wednesday alone. As public health officials urged people to stay home and the governor ordered bars and restaurants to stop offering dine-in service, the impact on the local tourism industry was swift and painful.
Hotels sent housekeepers home because they didn’t have enough rooms for them to clean. Laundry workers saw their days reduced. Entire restaurant staffs were laid off. The muscle that makes up the Grand Strand’s economic arm quickly atrophied.
“There’s no question this is all we needed to put us into recession,” said Rob Salvino, research economist for Coastal Carolina University. “It’s almost like a green fog of recession. … I’ve never experienced anything like this. I mean, 2008 and 2009 was one thing, but this is just a different type of feeling that really does touch every single person.”
Along Ocean Boulevard Thursday, the impact of the coronavirus filled the minds of workers.
Hannah Riley, a 22-year-old who works at Zombie Zone, doesn’t know how much longer she’ll have work. As foot traffic at the haunted house attraction dwindled to a handful of groups each day, there’s been talk of closing next week.
She doesn’t try to focus on that, though.
“I feel like in the end everything will work out,” she said. “I don’t want to stress myself out. I don’t believe in feeding into the fear. It’s just the way it is. If I am feeding into it, it’s just going to make me exhausted.”
Down the street at the Surf’s Up T-shirt shop, Maria Jualdron began to grow concerned as she pitched Henna tattoos to passersby.
“Nobody’s here,” she said. “The last two weeks, last week and the week before, it was better than now and it’s supposed to be better now. Pretty much everything is slow.”
Jualdron worries that state and local officials may shut down retail businesses the way leaders in other states have done.
“Pretty much anyone that doesn’t have any savings, I don’t know what they’re going to do,” she said.
Salvino, the CCU economist, knew the service industry would be the first hit by the wave of closures. For many of these workers, sitting at home and waiting just isn’t an option financially. Their bills mount and there’s no money coming in to cover them. And the $1 trillion stimulus package being discussed by federal lawmakers — including $1,200 payments to individuals — only goes so far.
“That’s probably one of the things that is the most difficult to even just think about,” he said. “And when things stop coming in, a $1,000 or $1,200 payment just does not make up for six to eight weeks’ worth of hourly wages. It just does not. It’s a definite hit.”
Clifford Dawkins has already felt the economic impact of the coronavirus. A laundry worker at Paradise Resort, he’s seen his days cut from five to three.
“It’s affecting my livelihood. Yes sir, it is,” he said Thursday afternoon as he waited for a bus to take him to his home in Kingstree. “They don’t know when it’s going to cease.”
Dawkins said he’s fortunate that he’s been working for the resort for 12 years and has some paid time off he can use to make up for the lost days. He’s glad to still have income, but he’s unsure how long the slowdown will last.
“If they ain’t making no money, then they have to cut back,” he said. “I understand that. … Don’t let me fool you. I’m concerned about it.”
His coworker, Keisha Pressley, is a supervisor at the resort. She said she’d just had to tell some housekeepers that they couldn’t use them because business hadn’t heated up the way it normally does in the spring.
“They’re concerned about bills, as always,” she said. “They have bills that need to be paid. How are they going to do this or do that when they’re out of work? They’re trying to figure out if they’re going to be able to draw unemployment.”
When tourism ramps up again, she hopes to bring back more people. Pressley said the hotel still had business — they got some spring breakers in town this week — and her bosses have tried to make sure workers get hours.
“There’s a lot of jobs that’s not like that at all,” she said.
For 74 years, the Gay Dolphin has been a Myrtle Beach staple. Even when the original store was wiped out by Hurricane Hazel in 1954, the owners rebuilt the place.
But this isn’t like a storm. The rebuilding doesn’t begin the next day because there’s no sign when the worst will be over.
“It is a much more difficult thing for me to understand,” said Buz Plyler, whose family built the business. “The economics don’t look realistic. It looks like that there’s the potential for an international financial collapse of mammoth proportions.”
Plyler understands the health concerns and he said if the government told him he had to close he would comply. But he and Kerscher are also worried about the 45 people who work there. They are folks like Cora Grice, a 58-year-old whose blue hair matched her uniform Thursday. Grice has worked for the Gay Dolphin for a year, though she’s spent decades in the tourism industry. She rides the bus from Plantersville in rural Georgetown County to the Ocean Boulevard gift shop. As she disinfected handrails, Grice said she’s grateful for the way her bosses are approaching the crisis and she’s trying to remain hopeful.
“I just keep my trust in God and people,” she said.
For her bosses, the fear is what they don’t know. Will there be more closures or curfews? How much of a normal spring will they have, let alone a summer — the lifeblood for retail shops in a beach town?
“If this was in October, everybody would be in a better position to pay their employees for a longer period of time because we would have had the summer,” Kerscher said. “Coming off of a winter, money in Myrtle Beach is limited. … We’re going to pay them as long as we can because unemployment isn’t going to pay their rent. … What’s going to happen?”