Which North Myrtle Beach restaurants require their public-facing employees to wear masks? Until a couple of weeks ago, the answer was all of them.
The city of North Myrtle Beach in early March stopped enforcing its mask mandate ordinance for restaurants following city leaders’ decision that continuing to do so would violate Gov. Henry McMaster’s decision to lift his state-wide mask requirement for eateries.
The city’s ordinance mandated face coverings for patrons entering any retail business, and for any employees who were interacting with members of the public. North Myrtle Beach is no longer enforcing those rules in restaurants, and council on Friday is scheduled to vote on an extension of the state of emergency and face-covering ordinance with the restaurant language removed.
To fill in the information void and reassure tourists, Destination North Myrtle Beach is compiling a list of restaurants that follow their own COVID-19 precautions. The chamber has been tracking consumer sentiments since the pandemic began, and most tourists would rather visit an area that has COVID-19 protocols still in place.
“And in those data reports that we get, it matters for people to have some sort of clarity of what to expect when they’re making travel plans,” said Destination NMB CEO Cheryl Kilday. “Some of them are going to determine where they go based on mask requirements. So we want to make sure that it’s clear what our various restaurants are doing since our restrictions are in flux.”
Last year, the city was preparing for what could have been a record tourist season, judging by heavy vacation bookings and accommodations taxes early in the year. Accommodations tax revenue was up 14% in January 2020 compared to January 2019. In February, accommodations taxes were up 11%.
Then COVID-19 struck. North Myrtle Beach banned new short-term rentals for the month of April to prevent tourists from bringing in new cases and McMaster closed the beaches to everyone except folks who had access to a beachfront home. In June, the city funded an effort to market itself to tourist who were willing to follow the rules. But case spikes caused leaders in other states to warn their residents against traveling to South Carolina and Horry County. Tourism dropped.
For each month between April and September, the city’s accommodation tax collections were down anywhere from 20% to 70% from the same month in 2019, totaling more than $1.28 million in lost revenue.
In October, the city began bouncing back, with accommodations taxes up 5% over 2019 levels. November saw a 15% increase over the previous year. This year, the chamber is hopeful that tourism returns to pre-pandemic levels, or better.
“I’d say that we’re cautiously optimistic and hopeful that we don’t have a black eye like we did last year where states and health officials and governors were saying not to come here,” Kilday said. “That’s one of the reasons that we’re doing this, is to make sure that we are fulfilling what consumers are looking for, so when they’re deciding where to go, we stay in that mix.”
One restaurant that still has safety measures in place is Greg Norman’s Australian Grill.
“We still take daily staff temperatures,” said Greg Norman’s general manager David Harrell in an email. “Public-facing staff are required to wear masks and many kitchen staff are choosing too as well. Patrons are encouraged to wear masks when not at tables, but are not required to. We have sanitizing stations throughout the restaurant, plus we have monthly deep cleanings for COVID-19 sanitization.”
Harrell said the restaurant was in favor of the chamber’s efforts because of tourists’ and patrons’ varied feelings on COVID-19 restrictions, with some customers who feel strongly about keeping precautions in place while others are eager to return to a feeling of normalcy.
“It’s still important to do our part to curb the spread of COVID-19, particularly for the reassurance of our patrons, employees and their families,” Harrell said. “Many of our patrons are still more comfortable with their table-side service staff wearing masks, and our main mission is customer satisfaction.”
North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley said compiling a list of restaurants with precautions in place is a good idea.
“We still have people who have not gotten their vaccinations and we still have people who feel more comfortable going into a restaurant that does still require their waitresses and wait staff to wear a mask,” Hatley said. “I think there are tourists that come here that feel more comfortable with the waitstaff wearing masks, and of course there’s those who it doesn’t bother. It gives them alternatives of where to go for those who do worry about it.”
Here’s how the listings will work: restaurants will have access to an “amenities” section under each restaurant listed on the explorenorthmyrtlebeach.com website, which is run by the chamber. The restaurants will be able to add whatever precautions they have to their listing, and can change it if their protocols change.
“They’re really happy that we’re offering this because they know it’s going to help,” Kilday said. “They may start out having it one way, but in a month or 60 days or later this summer, they may change, and that’s why we’re doing this in such a way that they can actually get into our system and update what they’re doing so that it allows them to be more fluid.”
The listings should be available within a couple weeks, and Kilday said the chamber will promote the initiative to locals with a household mailer in April.
Hatley said she’s expecting a “great” tourist season.
“I think more and more people are getting vaccinated and feeling more comfortable about traveling,” the mayor said, adding that she’s noticed an increase in weekend traffic in the past month. “I think people are ready to get out of their homes and go places, and I think it’s important for them to realize that we’re taking all the safety precautions that we can.”