By Ruben Lowman
As North Myrtle Beach begins to head into the first summer with the coronavirus, more and more residents and tourists are venturing out into the city.
The Times spoke with Mayor Marilyn Hatley recently to provide residents and visitors alike with more information about the city’s efforts to reopen the economy.
Mayor Hatley said that public safety is the number one priority and the city has worked hard over the past couple of months to safeguard residents and city employees for when municipal buildings become fully operational.
“The city has been very busy,” she said. “We’ve taken a lot of precautions over the past two months. City hall is still closed but hopefully we will be reopening to the public soon. We’re putting up all of the plexiglass around the different departments so that when someone does come in it will be safe for the customer and the people who work for the city.”
She emphasized that the lockdown may have affected the logistics of the way city officials typically operate but assured residents that it hasn’t impaired the city’s ability to function. “We’ve been very busy though. Even though city hall itself has been closed, people have been using the online [services] with the different departments and that has worked very well. So business has continued in city hall,” she said.
As the owner of local salon Visible Designs for over four-and-a-half decades, Hatley intimately understands the hardships business owners have endured over the past few months during the state’s lockdown.
“I’d like to say that we are very happy our small businesses are able to open up. I have been real worried about our small businesses.”
She is acutely aware of the concerns of both business owners and residents as the city begins to reopen and gradually resume operating on a ‘new normal’ level. She highlighted the city’s economic task force that was created to help North Myrtle Beach reopen safely and detailed some of their latest efforts.
“The task force that we formed has worked very hard, come up with great ideas and plans to move our city forward in a safe environment.”
Part of those plans is helping citizens who may be a bit weary about tourists coming in right now to better understand that the city and local businesses are doing everything they can to ensure their safety.
“This has been a successful opening,” she said. “The task force has worked very hard. We’re getting ready to start a campaign where we reach out to our residents. We want them to be healthy, we want them to be safe, but we also want them to welcome our visitors because tourism is our only industry. And it is very important that we get our industry thriving once again.”
Hatley stresses the importance to business owners of maintaining vigilance right now by following the social distancing guidelines laid out by the governor and state health agencies this month. She assures those anxious owners who may be worried about their income that over time the economy will rebound and return to where it was before.
“Listen to the health agencies, DHEC and the governor and do everything you can. Business may be a little bit slower right now. A lot of people are just not comfortable going out into a store right now. They’re a little reluctant. But it will come back, it’s always come back and it will come back.“
She took a moment to urge business owners to promote safe habits and policies, as leading experts have stated that is the most effective aspect of reopening the economy safely.
“But I do want to reiterate that it is very important for us to take every safety precaution we can with social distancing, you know washing hands, not touching faces, trying not to get too close to the customer, keeping their businesses very clean, continuously wiping down things. I think that is one of the biggest ways that we can keep from spreading the coronavirus,” Hatley said.
The mayor cited the slow rollout of amenities by the North Myrtle Beach Aquatic & Fitness Center as a strategy that has worked well for public safety, while also providing residents with access to the vital resources they need. She continuously emphasized that the city was being very thorough implementing new protocols in order to protect the public.
“The Aquatic & Fitness Center opened up and it was a very successful opening. We have put a lot of precautionary procedures in place and when I checked we had about 200 to 250 people come in. So we knew it would be a soft opening and that’s good. But we are happy people can get back to exercising and enjoy the pools and all that type of thing.”
Hatley also noted that she was happy residents were able to get back outside and into the sunshine, which has been shown to kill the coronavirus bacteria itself. She said this has been beneficial for everyone’s health, both mentally and physically.
Pictures of large crowds gathered together on the beach have gone viral since spring break and the Grand Strand has had its own beaches pop up on some of them. Hatley said that she travels up and down the coastline with Mike Mahaney, the city manager, a minimum of a few times a week and has observed the majority of people following social distancing.
“A lot of times looking down when somebody takes a picture it looks like people are on top of each other,” she said. “But I ride that beach with Mr. Mahaney at least two to three times a week and people are taking precautions. The majority. You always have some who won’t but the majority of people are taking precautions. And they’re distancing their blankets or their chairs from each other, staying in their own little family or best friends group that they have been around.”
She also provided an update on the proposed expansion plans that had been presented to City Council right before the lockdown for the North Myrtle Beach Park & Sports Complex.
“Because of the coronavirus and the impact it has had on our finances we have put all our major projects on hold,” she said. “We had plans to start the expansion of the sports complex but at this time it is on hold.
“Now we had already purchased the land, so we will continue to pay off the land. But as far as any actual building, you won’t see anything started this year that I can foresee. We just have to wait and see how our summer is, how our finances look,” she said.
The mayor stated that a substantial portion of the city’s budget had been taken away solely because of COVID-19 and the lockdown. She said city officials are aware they are dealing with an unprecedented situation and are remaining flexible until more concrete information is known about the virus and how it will influence people’s behavior throughout the summer.
“The fact that it‘s uncharted waters, we don’t know what our summer is going to be. It could be very successful but also it’s predicted that we will have about half of the amount of the tourists that we normally have.”
Despite those gloomy projections Hatley remains defiantly optimistic that our reputation as a popular road trip vacation destination will provide us with an unexpected economic boost. “All of the studies say that most people that are going on vacation this year feel very safe going to a driving destination. Well, we are a driving destination. We have always been a driving destination, so it may not have as big of an effect on us as we think it‘s going to,” she said.
The mayor did acknowledge the presence of COVID-19 in our area and explained that with the correct preventative measures in place we could still live the active beach lifestyles most locals have become accustomed to.
“We know it’s here,” Hatley said. “We know that it’s not going away, probably, until they are able to come up with a vaccine. But there’s a lot that we can do to stay healthy, just like anytime there’s a flu season or so forth.”
Above all, she is grateful for the remarkable collective effort that has been made in our area in response to the global spread of the coronavirus, and resolute that through unity the city will recover from the pandemic and return to the vibrant, emerging seaside metropolis that has evolved from the consolidation of four small residential beach towns in 1968.
“I just appreciate everything that everyone has done,” she said. “North Myrtle Beach is a great community and we have very smart people who live here, and with the help of everyone we will become the thriving community that we have always been.”