By Ruben Lowman
North Myrtle Beach City Council extended the city’s state of emergency ordinance for two months during an emergency council meeting held last Wednesday, July 8. The ordinance, which the city had initially declared back in March when the earliest measures were set in place to counteract the spread of the coronavirus, is now set to expire on September 6, unless city officials deem it necessary to rescind it or extend it further. They previously passed an extension to the ordinance when it was due to expire in May.
The state of emergency grants City Manager Mike Mahaney with the authority to use any measures required to help ensure the safety of North Myrtle Beach residents during the pandemic. These mostly include certain functions that are necessary to prevent large gatherings and events, and provide safe work environments for employees within municipal buildings and businesses within city limits.
This follows recent emergency measures passed by the city council and mayor to remedy the effects COVID-19 has had on the operational aspects of the city and its finances, as well as on residents, businesses and visitors.
In addition to the state of emergency extension, city leaders have over the past few weeks enacted a new budget that drastically reduced spending by halting all the major projects that they had anticipated would boost revenue and improve municipal services, and passed an ordinance mandating the use of face masks in public places to help prevent the transmission of the virus through respiratory particles that are released through your nose and mouth.
North Myrtle Beach spokesperson Pat Dowling said that the city has yet to issue any citations for the face mask ordinance, as city officials have placed the focus on compliance and are working to inform the public about the reasons for the ordinance and why it is necessary at this time.
As Mayor Marilyn Hatley said when passing the ordinance, “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.”
The mandate requires customers and employees of most retail establishments, including grocery stores, pharmacies, nail salons and barber shops, as well as all restaurants, to wear a facial covering while inside or around people, unless medically unable to or it is against your religion.
“It’s just when you’re getting those personal services,” explained Hatley. “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.”
Dowling said that there have not been many issues with the business community, as they grasp the significance of the ordinance.
“Most businesses have responded in a helpful, committed manner,” he said. “They understand that it is important to knock down the surge in COVID-19 cases along the Grand Strand, and to send a message to residents and visitors that they care about their health and well-being.”
The biggest problem the city encountered initially revolved around some businesses not adhering to or not understanding the “conspicuous signage” aspect of the mandate, Dowling said. He said that issue appears to be taken care of and, as a result, more residents and visitors are becoming aware of the law within North Myrtle Beach as well as the surrounding municipalities where similar measures were passed. At this time, whenever you walk into pretty much any business or government building in almost all of Horry County and the Grand Strand, customers will be greeted by a sign alerting them of the required use of a facial covering while inside.
“In terms of perception, the face-coverings ordinance has enhanced vacationer confidence in North Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand,” Dowling said. “However, several states within our traditional tourism market have issued orders for anyone who vacations in South Carolina to self-quarantine for 14 days upon returning home, which has led to numerous cancellations. On the flip side of that reality, we are also hearing this week that some of the lost reservations are being filled by people from other states where no such quarantine rules are in effect.”
South Carolina has emerged as a hot spot and currently has one of the highest daily reported cases in the country. Several states have had elected officials claim or publicly say that residents brought COVID-19 back home after vacationing in the Myrtle Beach area. Governors from a few states in the Northeast 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.
There have also been several unduly negative articles published by national newspapers and websites and critical coverage on cable news seemingly intent on portraying the area in an unfairly harsh light. Dowling addressed the possible motivations of projecting such a distorted image of the area.
“Additionally, the continued assault on South Carolina, Florida, Texas and other sunbelt or southern states by national news media certainly does harm tourism. Our mayor and other Grand Strand officials have appeared on national news shows and in articles in major newspapers to rebut some of the excessively negative coverage but to little avail,” Dowling said. “The negative coverage appears to be driven by a larger political agenda and discussion of the facts is not of interest to national news media at this point in time.”
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.
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.”
The mask ordinance will expire at the beginning of September but the mayor said that she was hoping to be able to lift the mandate earlier than that. The state of emergency ordinance will expire on September 6.