The Town of Pawleys Island will reopen the public beach accesses and adjacent public parking lots on Friday, May 1st. This is contingent on Georgetown County opening their public beach accesses before, or on May 1st.

The prohibition of future check-ins for short term rentals has been extended through May 14, 2020.

The vote about beach access points was made on Monday morning during a 10:30 a.m. virtual Town Council meeting. The 45-minute meeting was livestreamed on the Town’s Facebook page. Interested people may find and view the video in its entirety at “Town of Pawleys Island, South Carolina.”

Georgetown County Council was to have its regular meeting on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. where members planned to discuss and vote on similar issues for the unincorporated areas of Georgetown County.

Mayor Brian Henry started out the meeting by saying he thought Council should consider what medical authorities are saying about the COVID-19 pandemic. This mutated strain of the coronavirus first came to light in the city of Wuhan, in the Hubei province of China.

“Second, what are the economic considerations?” Henry asked. “We all know that tourism is king, and the clock is certainly ticking as the summer approaches.”

“Thirdly, what are the surrounding communities and beaches planning to do? We don’t want to be the only game in town. And then lastly, in terms of what I’m thinking of, what are the Governor’s current and forthcoming orders and how do they impact our decision today to either reopen the beaches or start short-term rentals again?”

Health and medical perspective

Town Administrator Ryan Fabbri shared medical information from South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Fabbri shared the DHEC Web page for COVID-19, with a map showing color-coded counties and the range of infection with the virus.

“DHEC, at least for us, is probably the most useful,” he said. Counties are also shown in order of number of cases. “Georgetown is not much different than when we met last week,” Fabbri said. “It’s the surrounding counties … that should be the concern, because if you do open the beaches, people are going to come from Horry County, Charleston County I would think with all their beaches closed, then you’ve got Florence County. Williamsburg County, where they’re seeing more, a spike in cases.”

“If you have people who were on the fence of driving a few hours to the beach four weeks ago when we initially made this decision, if we thought they might, or might not, come then, they’re not going to be so much on the fence this time around because they’ve all been sitting in their house for six weeks. A lot of people are stir crazy. What’s two or three hours to go to the beach?”

He noted that Saturday, April 25, had 180 new cases statewide and Sunday, April 26, had 220 new cases. “We’re not public health officials,” Fabbri said. The wider availability of testing now compared to a month ago is a factor in the increased number of cases, but he’s not sure of the effect on trends.

“As a layman I don’t know what those numbers mean, other than obviously there’s still a problem out there.”

“I don’t know that anyone can tell us when it’s going to be safe to reopen the beaches. It could be, now. I don’t know the answer to that question,” Fabbri said.

Councilman Guerry Green asked, “When do they expect the State of South Carolina to peak out in their cases?”

Henry said, “Guerry, DHEC is certainly a very good site to review. IHME is what the federal government is using. … They look at ICU bed utilization, ventilators, and they try to forecast what the peak usage was for those resources, and they had said that April 15 was the peak utilization … but I think that changed, April 23 was the date … so that changed, that tells you they’re not really sure.”

He continued that “Georgetown County has been very, very flat with fewer cases, but our consideration is that we are a tourism destination, and so we get folks from Atlanta, Charlotte, North Carolina and beyond. New York and California.”

Henry said he believes the data is more flat than on the downside, as far as the number of cases.

On Wednesday, April 21, Henry dialed in on a Webinar hosted by the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce. Panelists included Bruce Bailey, CEO of Tidelands Hospital System, Dr. Gerald Harmon, vice president of medical affairs for Tidelands, and Brandon Ellis, director of Emergency Management for Georgetown County.

Henry said he submitted a question about whether or not it’s a good idea to reopen beach accesses.

Fabbri played an audio clip with a statement by Harmon, “I will tell you, I really think it’s going to be OK to be on the beach. We’re blessed with room. We have beaches. We have an opportunity to maintain a reasonable social distance, yet still have a good recreational time … I think we’re going to have a good opportunity to respond to the tourist influx.”

Festivals are good too, Harmon said, for social purposes and economically. “We’re going to need a vaccine, long-term.” Eventually, that will be developed and become available, he said.

There may need to be a moratorium for awhile on the Southern traditions of shaking hands, a hug or a peck on the cheek, Harmon said. “We’re going to have to be patient.”

Following that audio recording, Henry said he doesn’t want to put Harmon on the spot, “but I think we all know Dr. Harmon, and he’s probably one of the most respected and credible experts, not only in Georgetown County, but in South Carolina and also in the country.”

Councilman Ashley Carter said, “It seems, obviously, that Dr. Harmon is promoting access to the beaches. That it’s a safe place to be, obviously with proper social distancing and so forth, but being in the sunshine, being out, getting exercise … from what I hear Dr. Harmon saying, he is promoting that.”

Council member Sarah Zimmerman asked Fabbri if he had talked with the county about opening Garden City Beach and North Litchfield Beach. “I’m concerned about us being the only available beach in literally 100 miles.”

Economic considerations

Henry said as far as economic considerations, “We all know tourism is our bread and butter. No one has a crystal ball, to say when it’s safe to open the beaches and open the short-term rentals. But we do all know that, starting in mid-May, revenue really starts to flow for property owners and those who rent their property.”

“So, let’s just go ahead and leave the economic part at that, because we all know our well-being, financially, is very much tied to tourism, restaurants, heads in beds, entertainment – that’s where the dollars flow.”

“But, to answer your question, I do know that after speaking with John Thomas (chairman of County Council), the county has voted to close the beaches until May 15.”

Georgetown County Council was to meet Tuesday evening to consider whether it would amend that date.

“The sense that I’m getting, after talking with several (County Council members), is that they are looking to open those public beaches this coming Friday, May 1,” Henry said.

He suggested that Pawleys Town Council consider the same date for its beach accesses.

“If the vote doesn’t go the way we think, then we’ve got time to react, and we’ve also got time to look at the health data from DHEC and such, and maybe change course between now (Monday) and Friday.”

One more thing

Henry also shared with other Town Council members, “Duane Parrish is director of South Carolina Parks, Recreation and Tourism.”

“He stated ‘Most South Carolina state parks, including Huntington Beach State Park, will reopen May 1 for daily use, with restrictions’.”

Carter said that with Huntington Beach State Park opening, and the possibility of other county beaches opening, “then that’s going to eliminate one big problem for us.”

He offered a motion that if the County votes to open up the beaches as of May 1, then Pawleys Island would do the same. Zimmerman seconded. The motion was approved.

The Georgetown Times/South Strand News will update this story online, depending on Tuesday’s decision by Georgetown County Council and any further action by Pawleys Island Town Council.