By Ruben Lowman
During an emergency meeting last Tuesday North Myrtle Beach City Council approved an ordinance mandating the wearing of face masks in public places to prevent the spread of COVID-19. North Myrtle Beach was the first municipality in the county to pass facial covering legislation, which took effect last Thursday, July 2, at noon, followed closely by the councils of Myrtle Beach, Horry and Georgetown Counties and Atlantic Beach.
This comes amid an alarming acceleration in positive confirmed coronavirus cases along the Grand Strand since the Memorial Day weekend. Previously, the numbers for new positive tests in Horry County remained minimal, in the single or low double-digits. That has changed significantly over the past month, culminating with Horry County’s single-day record of 358 last Saturday.
The sharp increase in positive cases since the governor reopened hotels and accommodations has forced local leaders to reevaluate the measures they have in place and their effectiveness while remaining strictly voluntary. Councilman-at-large Hank Thomas noted that he went to a few grocery stores over lunch and noticed that around 50-60 percent of the people were already wearing masks.
At the same time, many people, both residents and visitors, have not taken the social distancing and social gathering guidelines very seriously and have eschewed masks and facial coverings when going out in public. Mayor Marilyn Hatley expressed that notion saying, “People aren’t socially distancing, people aren’t wearing masks, people are not following the regulations that have been laid out for us.”
As a result this area has become one of the major hot spots in the state, which has itself been deemed one of the new epicenters of transmission across the nation. Using DHEC’s data, the zip codes of North Myrtle Beach, Little River and Longs each have around 280 confirmed cases and 1,700 estimated cases by state officials as of the time of publication, encompassing roughly one-fifth of the total cases within all of Horry County.
Although the city and its businesses have made strides to keep up with what has become an ever-changing “new normal”, city officials felt it was necessary to step in and compel some people to change their behavior for the greater good of the community as a whole.
Hatley pointed out the uncomfortable decision city leaders felt they had to make.
“There’s no one up here on the council who was looking forward to voting on this ordinance but there is a responsibility for all of us to look out for the health and safety of our community. Wearing a mask is a simple thing. It’s easy to wear them into the stores, which this ordinance basically is just mandating people to wear a mask into public places.”
The mandate will require customers and employees of retail stores, including grocery stores, pharmacies, nail salons and barber shops, as well as all restaurants, to wear a facial covering while inside the establishment, unless medically unable to or if it is against your religion.
“It’s just when you’re getting those personal services,” explained the mayor. “When you’re going into your retail stores, your grocery stores, your drug stores, places where you are very close to people. People that you don’t know, that you have no idea if they live here or if they are visiting. It’s just our duty to be respectful of other people’s health.”
Businesses in the city will not be required to enforce the ordinance but they must post signs outlining these rules at their entrances. The mask mandate will also apply to all government employees while they are having direct contact with the public. The orders will be enforced by a city code compliance official or by a law enforcement officer, and will carry a fine of $25 for customers and $100 for employees.
Opponents of the face mask mandate, including a few city and area residents who attended the emergency meeting and voiced their opposition to the council members, have mostly said that the ordinance would infringe on their individual rights and freedoms. Councilman Thomas addressed that aspect and related the experience to when wearing a seat belt first became a mandatory part of driving a car in this country.
“I thought what government is going to tell me that I need to wear a seat belt, I’m responsible for my own personal safety. I look at this [ordinance] at this particular time as very similar,” Thomas said. “Maybe it’s not as much for my personal protection as it may be for the protection of the man that lives next door to me. So I know that it is a bit controversial, even though I think the majority of people favor [the ordinance].”
Mayor Hatley agreed with the councilman. “Yes, people do have freedom,” she said. “ But does that freedom merit the spreading [of the coronavirus] or of hurting someone else’s health?”
Thomas said that most visitors during the summer are from outside of South Carolina and are coming from areas where wearing a mask is compulsory and has become a normalized behavior over the past four months.
“So I don’t think it’ll be a shock and I don’t think it’ll send a negative message to the general public that we hope will come to the beach this summer,” he said.
South Carolina has emerged as a global hot spot and currently has the third-highest daily reported cases per capita in the nation, only behind Arizona and Florida. Several states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Kentucky, have had elected officials confirm or publicly say that residents brought COVID-19 back home after vacationing in the Myrtle Beach area. Governors from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut held a joint press conference recently to alert their residents to emerging hot spots, such as the Grand Strand, and in a bitter twist from when the pandemic first emerged warned that anyone returning home would need to self-quarantine for two weeks.
Councilman-at-large Bob Cavanaugh stated that our reputation as a vacation area will be hurt the more time we continue to make headlines as a hot spot, and the sacrifice of wearing a mask in public will help bring our cases down and provide a safer environment for locals and visitors.
“We are a tourist destination and we can’t stand any longer being a hot zone,” Cavanaugh said. “Because it will hurt us, not only this year but probably next year. And it’s also something that will jeopardize any new shutdowns. [The mask ordinance] is one minor inconvenience so that we get out of this situation and keep our city going the way we’ve always planned it. We will be significantly changed if the hot zone continues for a long time and I don’t want that to happen.”
Councilman Thomas, who owns several real estate and vacation rental companies in the city, described how the recent surge in cases and the publicity it has received has affected his businesses.
“Since we were named a hot spot last week I’ve watched my bookings go from 140 percent above what we were booking a year ago, to dropping below 50 percent of what we were booking last week. And our cancellation rate is climbing,” Thomas said. “So as a community and as an employer who wants to protect my employees I think the face mask [ordinance] is appropriate.”
According to projections laid out by researchers from the University of Washington, South Carolina would see a 76 percent drop in projected positive cases by the beginning of August if the majority of people wore a mask in public places. Dr. Linda Bell, the state’s epidemiologist, said that, “This is a public health crisis. We have too few measures to prevent this deadly virus so we have to use those very few measures that we have.”
She said that she supports the local leaders, such as North Myrtle Beach’s, who have passed legislation requiring people to wear masks and pleaded with the public to remember their loved ones and the lives that have already been lost, and embrace the temporary changes for the time being.
“Think of those who sacrificed before us and it is our duty to look out for the well-being of others, and if we don’t take that action now then we’re going to see more of our friends, family and loved ones become ill from the virus,” Bell said.
The emergency ordinance will expire after 60 days but the mayor said that she was hoping to be able to lift the ordinance by the beginning of next month.