Myrtle Beach is hopeful as a fuller reopening from COVID-19 seems to roll toward shore

Carol Motsinger
Greenville News

MYRTLE BEACH – Pat McCleod pushed the button on her cellphone, but the screen ignored the point of her finger. Each tap was an attempt to show the day's texts from folks who checked in as hotel guests and left as her friends.

They swap supportive sentiments among rows of heart emojis and exclamation points. "Have a blessed day." "Love you." "Miss you." With a phone and just one tap of the finger, typically, the distance between them collapses. 

"I guess with these gloves, it's harder," said McCleod, still tapping away.

McCleod wore the gloves — and a mask over her smile — as she cleaned Room 413 at the Holiday Sands North on the morning of May 7, just days after Myrtle Beach hotels were allowed to welcome more visitors.

It's been about seven weeks since the novel coronavirus provoked state and local leaders to effectively halt the state's vital tourism industry, threatening the jobs of at least 80,000 people in the northeast slice of South Carolina.

With an estimated economic impact of $7 billion, hospitality isn't just this area's bread and butter, deep-fried and super-sized. It's also the butter knife and the breadbasket and the kitchen table.

Horry and Georgetown counties, home to the 60 miles of beaches known as the Grand Strand, props up the whole state's economy, too. Visitor spending and accommodations tax there represent about a third of the South Carolina yearly totals. 

This reliance on visitors and vacations, however, makes Myrtle Beach especially vulnerable to a side effect of the fight to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Social-distancing guidelines canceled crowds, and crowds feed families from Cherry Grove to Murrells Inlet and beyond.

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Horry County has had one of the highest numbers of new unemployment claims in the state week after week since health officials confirmed the first South Carolina coronavirus case in early March. Some 50% of workers directly employed in the tourism industry were out of a job at the beginning of May, said Karen Riordan, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. 

That is staggering, but the losses go beyond the wages and the work. This isn't just what Myrtle Beach does for a living; this is who these folks are. McCloud, the maintenance supervisor, said as much as she cleaned those fourth-floor hotel rooms.

"The guests, they are my family," she said, "and I treat everybody as if they are mine."

Holiday Sands North maintenance supervisor Pat McCleod wipes down doorknobs while a girl peeks out of her room to see the cleaning activity at the hotel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Thursday, May 7, 2020.

That's how guests get her phone number and text her after they return home. That's why the guests who stayed in Room 413 the first week of May, a family she didn't know, sent her this message: "Thanks and stay healthy!!!"

These words, written on the back of a Captain D's restaurant receipt, wrapped two $5 dollar bills left on the bathroom sink.

Myrtle Beach typically has a higher ratio of tourists than Las Vegas

McCleod is proud of her part in this industry. This is the New Jersey native's chosen home. Even though people like her might come on holiday and never leave, Myrtle Beach is a small town. 

It just doesn't look like it.

Myrtle Beach might have the highest tourist-to-townie ratio in the country. Only about 34,000 people welcome about 20 million visitors annually, which translates to about 588 visitors for every resident. In Las Vegas, the ratio is 76 to one.

The public works trucks assume you aren't from these parts. They have "Thank you for visiting" bumper stickers.  

Folks flock for the beach's come-as-you-are and be-who-you-want-to-be vibes. The Grand Strand is a respite from real life, a place to indulge in the extreme or otherwise impossible.

More:SC governor lifted the ban on beach access, but not all beaches are reopening

You want some seafood? Try the 170-item buffet at The Original Benjamin's Calabash Seafood. Want to see Elvis live? There's one at the Legends in Concert theater.

Vacation is a fantasy, and Myrtle Beach is literal about it — look for signs pointing to the Fantasy Harbor district.

It's also about hope that each day is going to be the best day. People come to believe the sun will shine every day, the sea will gift shells and shark teeth on morning walks. Myrtle Beach is made up of the same magic that convinces us a summer fling can be a forever love.

Moments are just lifelong memories in infancy.

Travelers snatch up branded key chains and mugs and towels to use at home so they can pretend they never left.

Mickla English of Myrtle Beach waits to help customers buy T-shirts in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Wednesday, May 6, 2020. One shirt to her right reads, "I survived Corona virus 2020."

Worries are about the only thing not welcome. 

And in the coronavirus era, the world has worries too big to fit in a suitcase: death and debt and the devastating fear that the life we've lived may have disappeared.

Maybe the world needs Myrtle Beach and its sunny brand of T-shirt optimism more than ever.

But the world didn't rush to Myrtle Beach's doorstep at that first week of the reopening. Occupancy was mostly in the single digits, up to 10%, Riordan said. This time of year hotels should be about 30% to 40%, she said.

So, who were the people some of the people who did show up? Smartphone data reviewed by the Maryland Transportation Institute offers a snapshot. An analysis from researcher Sepehr Ghader focused on May 8, the second Friday hotels were able to receive guests in Myrtle Beach. 

Kiera Bebla, left, and her mother Theresa Beble, of Pennsylvania enjoy ice cream together in 86-degree weather on the Boardwalk in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Wednesday, May 6, 2020. Their original plan to visit Disneyworld in March was changed to Myrtle Beach.

In total, he found that 101,077 visitors arrived in Horry County that day. In the months before the pandemic hit South Carolina, that number bounced up and down, from around 60,000 to 140,000. The peak hit on around Valentine's Day. 

On May 8, the most came from neighboring Georgetown County, followed by Brunswick County and Columbus County in North Carolina.  

That's not a surprise. Most tourists, year after year, come from within the Carolinas. But the border between North and South Carolina means something different these days.

South Carolina officials have loosened restrictions to daily life at a faster pace. 

Some are concerned that vacationers may slam the coast during the upcoming Memorial Day, bringing more cases of COVID-19 with them. The South Carolina Beach Advocates, a group of public officials from coastal towns, sent a letter to Gov. Henry McMaster asking him to reconsider his reopening policies. 

On Myrtle Beach's main drag, the gift shop owners prepared. Street signs glowed with a new promise.

Masks for sale.

The possibility of summer remains for tourism in South Carolina

Myrtle Beach had a hotel before it had its name.

"We were made for one reason and one reason only, and that was tourism," said Riordan.

When Seaside Inn opened its doors in 1901, its address was in a place called New Town, an accurate moniker in a state with cities founded as New World colonies. Six years later, a contest named Myrtle Beach, an ode to native trees that shaded the coast.

F.E. Burroughs entered the winning name. She was the wife of the Burroughs in the Burroughs & Collins company that owned Seaside Inn and developed the area as a blue-collar retreat.

"Myrtle Beach was designed to be a very accessible place," Riordan said. "It was actually created for the mill towns, for the people who lived in South Carolina and North Carolina who were solidly middle class and didn't have a lot of money but needed respite and wanted to get away and have that family time."

This appeal remained, she said, after places like the Seaside Inn were torn down to make way for the high-rises and the high-end. Sure, you'll spot neon-lit bachelorette parties or boys' trips on the boardwalk. But most come for an affordable family getaway, and many make it a summer tradition, Riordan said. 

The beautiful beaches, the area's most valuable asset, have always been free. And they've always belonged to the public.

Beth Short, left, and James Jones, middle, of Atlanta, walk with Chris Scott to the shore after fishing in the Atlantic Ocean in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Wednesday, May 6, 2020.

Myrtle Beach officially became a city in 1938.

Garrett Williams' late grandfather, Roger, was older than Myrtle Beach. He died last February at 98. In the late 1960s, Roger traded in his tobacco farm out in the county for some land by the sea. Over the decades, his family has built and run hotels, attractions and the like.

Garrett Williams has worked at one of them since he was 12 or so. Back then, it was mowing at a putt-putt. These days he is behind the desk at the Holiday Sands North. 

These towers by the ocean rose in 1984. Williams' grandmother, who just turned 95, lives in one of the building's penthouses. 

On the morning of May 7, Williams answered the phone behind a clear barrier. It's ringing more now, he said. The people on the other end have been booking for summer stays. It's felt a bit more like normal, but this is not what normal looks like. 

He recently installed hand-sanitizer dispensers on the counter. Two cups are for pens, one labeled "clean," the other "dirty." Tape on the lobby floor measures every six feet or so. 

When Rock Hill's Amber Reece checked out, Williams told her to keep her key, saying, "Before this, we would reuse them." 

"I can save it as one of my keepsakes," she said. 

Tourist Amber Reece checks in as Garrett Williams, general manager of Holiday Sands North, helps her with her room at the hotel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Thursday, May 7, 2020.

Williams said he will be checking in more guests as May marches on. He ended the second weekend of the month with about 30% capacity.

He's also bringing more staff back to work. Williams was able to secure Paycheck Protection Program loans to support his 40-person or so staff during the business's almost-total shutdown this spring. 

But Williams never banks on May being the biggest month. Like the people he greets in the lobby, he is hopeful about the promise of summer.

Fall may be better than usual. A canceled country music festival and a food truck rally have already been rescheduled for later this year, he said.

And as long as they've got a busy June and July and August ahead of them, they should be OK.

They've been OK a lot since 1984, after all. 

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Williams remembers the days when the tourist season was much shorter. Myrtle Beach slowed down so much after Labor Day that the city turned the stoplights into flashing red signals — no need to make people wait for cars that aren't going to come. 

He remembers 1989. Hurricane Hugo devoured the beach, just steps away from the hotel, leaving behind a 10-foot cliff where should have been sand.

But Williams' hometown is a scrappy place. People in these parts don't hold their breath during the hurricane season. They board their windows and wait for the fight to come to them. And if they have to rebuild, they rebuild together. 

Garrett Williams, general manager of Holiday Sands North, takes reservations for rooms after May 14 at the hotel on he beachfront in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Thursday, May 7, 2020.

They are together now in the face of another foe, one that's lasted for weeks instead of hours.

People donated $700,000 to a relief fund. As tourists parked their cars and trucks at the beach in the first week of May, the convention center a couple of blocks away hosted a food drive for struggling neighbors.

Mark Lazarus started the afternoon of May 7 with a virtual meeting with the Grand Strand hospital at his office at the Broadway Grand Prix Family Race Park. He's on the board of trustees.

Lazarus is community-minded. He's held public office and helmed the chamber of commerce. He's one of those "rising tides lift all boats" guys, he says. He gets that from his mother, a dedicated volunteer. 

Mark Lazarus, president and partner of Lazarus Entertainment Group looks over go carts and preparations for when the state allows him to reopen the family-owned Broadway Grand Prix Family Race Park in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Thursday, May 7, 2020.

These days, he's also part of a group making recommendations to McMaster about how and when to reopen shuttered attractions, including things like putt-putt courses, zoos, aquariums, theaters, amusement parks and more.

Residents were allowed to play golf at the hundred or so local courses. Guests could hit the links again starting in early May.

Lazarus said he hopes they can figure out a way to safely reopen the other attractions by Memorial Day, the unofficial start of the summer. 

McMaster is expected to make a reopening announcement soon. Staff at the Grand Prix have already painted white x-marks where folks will stand, six feet apart, in lines to get on the go-carts. 

This time of year, Broadway Grand Prix would already be crowded with college kids and families, Lazarus said. He shut down before the governor forced closure, right as their season began. They missed the spring-breakers and the spring golfers, as well as The Society of Shaggers, the beach-music dance devotees who come to the birthplace of Shag.

He's used to unseen curves in the road. Weather, technology, safety measures, the expectations of customers — those things are always on the move, he said.

Mike Logan blows leaves cleaning miniature golf course at Broadway Grand Prix Family Race Park in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Thursday, May 7, 2020. Many tourist attractions are closed because of coronavirus restrictions.

Lazarus moved with his family from Gastonia, North Carolina, in 1976. Before then, they ventured down here just for fun. As a boy, he at first didn't believe people actually lived in this paradise.

His father, Jack, opened a track where you could drive real race cars. Lazarus picked up cigarette butts and cleaned toilets for $2.35 an hour.

Since then, he rose the ranks to company president, and the family has opened and bought more water parks and race tracks, part of the wave of growth that's transformed Myrtle Beach.

His Broadway Grand Prix office stands in the exact spot where he used to hunt doves and rabbits in high school.

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Russ Stalvey sat in the sun next to the Oceanfront Bar and Grill corner entrance. This was the best perch for people-watching, he said, and the lunch-hour show this day did not disappoint.

One man walked by with three mastiffs, each bigger than the children who stopped to pet them. Another stopped pushing his bike on the boardwalk to sing along to the Elton John track blaring on the restaurant’s outdoor speakers.  

Robert Kurtz and Crystal Thorne sipped Corona beers on the Oceanfront chairs facing the shore, keeping an eye of their children playing in the sand nearby. This was a last-minute trip from North Carolina, they said. They had to escape the pressures of the lockdown for just a few days.

And this was a much better view than the one from their back porch. 

This was not, however, a typical May day on the boardwalk. That would be about 100 times busier, Stalvey said.

Robert Kurtz, left, and Crystal Thorne of Raleigh, N.C. enjoy a vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Wednesday, May 6, 2020.

He would know. Stalvey basically grew up on this block. His grandparents opened Oceanfront in 1948. His parents ran it after them. His grandmother’s recipes remain on the menu. 

No other time in the business’s 72-year history compares to the last six weeks, he said.

He closed the restaurant for that spell. They could stay open for takeout, but without the tourist orders, the numbers didn’t justify keeping the lights on. They opened the kitchen for outdoor service May 4, the first day the governor's restaurant restriction ended. 

“It will take a lot more than this for us to go anywhere, I can promise you that,” he said. 

Darryl Lee ate at an Oceanfront picnic table by himself. The jazz playing on his headphones kept him company.

"I came to clear my head,” the man from Conyers, Georgia, said from behind a cloth mask. “The water is purification for you. You cast your troubles in the water."

No reason he couldn’t enjoy good eating along the way.

Darryl Lee of Conyers, Georgia wears a mask with Batman theme cloth on vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Wednesday, May 6, 2020. "I came to clear my head. The water is purification for you. You cast your troubles in the water," Lee said.

There is something mystical about the coastline, he said. The beach is expansive and forever-feeling. A person — and personal problems — are so small in comparison, just specks of sand.

The next morning, Lee fell to his knees along the shore. He prayed, asking for understanding and for comfort. He splashed the salt water on his feet and head. 

Before he left, he snagged a souvenir, a portrait of the possibility of Myrtle Beach. He snapped a cellphone photo of the rising sun.

Darryl Lee snapped this photograph with his cellphone during his trip to Myrtle Beach.