When Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, told Spring Break visitors to leave back in March, politicians and business owners thought a brief closure would save the tourist town’s summer season.
So about a month later, state and local officials began to let visitors return, despite warnings from medical experts that it was far too soon for America to lift so-called lockdowns. As thousands in the Northeast were dying from the novel coronavirus, thousands of tourists started to stream back to hotels, shops, restaurants and bars along Myrtle Beach’s shoreline. And the pathogen spread there, too.
Summer tourism adds up to $7 billion in annual revenue for Myrtle Beach, a favorite vacation spot for Americans in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states. With only 34,700 year-round residents, the town is designed around the seasonal influx. This year, however, those tourists helped turn Myrtle Beach into a national pariah — and as it turned out — a harbinger of what was to come across the American South and West.
Now, as fall approaches, places like Myrtle Beach and other tourist destinations down the southeastern seaboard are taking stock. And as bad as the summer was for them financially, the future could be worse. After those early reopenings, shifting mask and social distancing requirements pushed business owners from pillar to post, while dissuading many from visiting for fear of infection.
Some businesses failed while others managed to get by. But even the lucky ones may not survive to see 2021.
For most of the pandemic, America has been the worst place in the world when it comes to the coronavirus, leading all nations with roughly 25% of deaths and infections worldwide. The politicized tension between money and health that some epidemiologists contend is at the heart of the country’s failure seemed to crystallize in tourist towns that depend on the summer for most of their revenue.
Myrtle Beach was labeled a “petri dish” for the virus after outbreaks in other states were tied back to the town, with some condemning Myrtle Beach. Mayor Brenda Bethune pushed back against the flood of criticism, describing the town’s decisions as a “balancing act.”
“It’s very hard to determine that someone contracted the virus here, in our city, versus somewhere else,” Bethune said. “We can’t control how many people they have in a house or room together, or what they choose to do when they’re in close quarters.” Financially, Bethune said that Myrtle Beach was up against the wall as summer approached. “In Myrtle Beach, we really have about 100 days to make it, and that is our tourism season,” she said. “We really could not stay closed any longer.”
Horry County, which includes Myrtle Beach, has at least 9,002 cases of the virus and 176 deaths as of Aug. 20, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
In early March, the first coronavirus case was confirmed in South Carolina. By March 14, Horry County confirmed its first infection. The city declared an emergency, but it being the height of Spring Break, young people continued to gather in large crowds. Myrtle’s beaches remained open.
But by the end of March, local officials thought better of it, ordering all accommodations and most attractions to close. Beaches were blocked off by the state and partiers departed, some taking the virus with them. Horry County — where half of all jobs are in hospitality — led the state in unemployment claims for weeks.
By April, the state began to lift virus restrictions, and by May, the hospitality industry was picking back up. And the tourists returned en masse. Some towns in South Carolina and Georgia urged visitors to obey safety measures like using a mask and washing their hands, but ran headlong into Republican governors who barred mask mandates and customers unwilling to follow the rules.
Many towns, like Myrtle Beach, took only limited precautions at first.
Unsurprisingly, Myrtle Beach saw coronavirus cases rise in June and July. Tidelands Health had braced for a virus surge in April, but it didn’t appear, said Chief Operating Officer Gayle Resetar. When cases did begin to climb, she was caught understaffed. The facility had just three Covid-19 patients on June 16. A week later, it had 50, she said.
The rise in cases caused some visitors to rethink their summer plans. Jack Hannigan, who owns Jack’s Surf Lessons and an Airbnb in Myrtle Beach, said the store’s business was down about 25% as July 4 approached. It took until July 2 for Myrtle Beach’s city council to order masks be worn in restaurants, hotels and attractions where a social distancing of six feet couldn’t be maintained. (Bethune said they likely would have done so sooner, except for lack of clarity about whether the state would allow it.)
In Savannah, Georgia, another popular vacation spot about 170 miles to the south, Mayor Van Johnson signed a mask order on June 30, adding in a light blue scrawl at the bottom, “God help us!” Local officials there pushed business safety pledges — Savannah Safe — that included promises to follow federal and state safety guidelines, disinfect frequently touched areas and wear protective equipment. Hundreds of businesses signed on. Johnson said he spent the holiday handing out face masks to passersby.
To the delight of many business owners, the July 4 holiday crowds that usually come materialized, filling up 75% of hotel rooms in Myrtle Beach. Destinations like Myrtle Beach and Savannah benefitted from the uptick in Americans looking for post-lockdown vacations that didn’t involve airlines. Some resort areas along the Atlantic seaboard even had higher Airbnb bookings than last year.
But by mid-July, surf shop-owner Hannigan said groups were starting to cancel Airbnb reservations because of the worsening virus situation across the country, and in Myrtle Beach.
The financial impact in places like Myrtle Beach are twofold, said Daniel Guttentag, director of the Office of Tourism Analysis at South Carolina’s College of Charleston. There are the direct effects on businesses and tax losses that can degrade local services. The city already cut $8 million from its budget because of the pandemic. Hotels “are still putting heads in beds — it’s just not nearly the same number,” he said.
Karen Riordan, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said hotel occupancy may be down by 30% compared with pre-pandemic times. Some businesses will reach the off-season without enough revenue to survive the winter, said Taylor Damonte, who runs the Center for Tourism at Coastal Carolina University.
“My biggest concern is that we begin to have more and more bankruptcies and business closures,” he said. “Even the ones that reopened this summer will have a very difficult time getting through the rest of the winter, and many that didn’t reopen will likely never come back.”
Peaches Corner is a popular hot dog counter in Myrtle Beach, having presided over Ocean Boulevard since before it was even a city. Robert Alston, 69, said he’s worked as a manager and cook at Peaches for more than 20 years. On a normal Saturday afternoon in mid-July, there would be a line out the door, he said. Instead, booths with plexiglass guards sat empty.
Nearby, John Walters, 39, airbrushes designs onto t-shirts at an open-air stand. Business is still down, Walters said, adding that he may be forced to pick up a side job, like driving for Uber. “I’m banking every dollar I can scratch up so I can make it through the winter,” Walters said, “because I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills.”
While Walters said he’s happy to airbrush designs onto people’s cloth masks, but won’t wear one because he isn’t “a sheep.”
Alan and Kathy Sander of Pennsylvania spent July 4 in their hotel room in Myrtle Beach, watching the crowded sands from their balcony. By the next weekend, with the holiday surge gone, the couple was leaning back in beach chairs under a red umbrella, yards from anyone else — but with masks at the ready.
The couple said their trip had been good except for a confrontation with people in their hotel. Kathy Sander, 55, said a woman yelled at her for wearing a mask and obeying hotel rules that only one family could use an elevator at a time.
In Savannah, things haven’t been much better since July 4. Mayor Johnson said the city was still fighting to make something out of what he said has been an increasingly terrible summer. “It’s been hell, to be frank,” he said.
Known for its beauty and historical architecture, the Savannah area saw 14 million tourists come to town last year, accounting for $3 billion in revenue, said Joseph Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah. This summer, it’s projected to see half of that. “Everything came to a screeching halt,” he said.
Bill and Christie Miller of Marietta, Georgia, had planned a Caribbean cruise for May, but when the pandemic made that impossible, decided to take a shorter trip, to Savannah. As it grew dark one Saturday night in July at the town’s City Market, the Millers said they were surprised by crowds of mostly mask-less visitors eating and drinking while a “Mask Up Savannah” message board flashed across the square.
“We were told that everywhere it was mandatory,” Christie Miller, 52, said.
In Chatham County, which includes Savannah, some 6,665 people have been infected with the coronavirus and 115 have died.
Keely Davis, 24, traveled to Savannah to celebrate her birthday in March. After waiting out the lockdown, she decided to stay and take a job working as a “ghost tour” guide. During the weekends this summer, the city brims with people, Davis said, as if there was no pandemic.
But on weekdays, it feels far quieter than before Covid-19 struck.
“It’d be cool if people could wait until next year to come and visit Savannah,” Davis said. “But at the same time, I’m very grateful to have a job.”
Mask mandates like those enacted in Myrtle Beach and Savannah enable police to fine people who don’t wear masks in the restricted areas. But enforcing it also falls on business owners, and this can put them in direct confrontations with customers. In Savannah, implementing a mask mandate put the mayor directly in conflict with Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who sued the city of Atlanta for such an order.
“Kemp does not give a damn about us,” Johnson tweeted in July in response to the lawsuit. He later said Savannah continued enforcing its mask requirement anyway.
But Savannah’s police department hadn’t been enforcing the local law as of early August. At the time, its employees had yet to issue a citation under the mask ordinance, the agency said, though it claimed to have handed out 1,250 masks. Myrtle Beach had issued three citations to businesses over employees not wearing masks, and none to individuals.
As summer comes to an end, new Covid-19 cases have been slowing in Savannah and Myrtle Beach. The full economic ramifications of the pandemic, however, may not be seen until next season.
“None of us really knows what’s going to happen this afternoon, let alone tomorrow or let alone next week,” Visit Savannah’s Marinelli said.