'An absolute hot spot': Myrtle Beach braces for tourists despite COVID-19 outbreaks

The Grand Strand, as it’s called, has been linked to outbreaks that have sickened some 200 people, mostly teens, in Virginia.
A sign asks people to maintain social distancing on the beach in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on June 18, 2020.
A sign asks people to maintain social distancing on the beach in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on June 18, 2020.Jeffrey Collins / AP file

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By Joe Murphy and Corky Siemaszko

Myrtle Beach was bracing Wednesday for an invasion of Fourth of July weekend revelers undeterred by reports that the South Carolina tourist mecca has been identified as a coronavirus hot spot.

The Grand Strand, as it’s called, has been linked to outbreaks that have sickened some 200 people, mostly teens, in Virginia. And the governors of nearby West Virginia and Kentucky have warned their constituents to stay away.

Myrtle Beach is an absolute hot spot and, if I were you, I would consider going somewhere else,” West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said earlier this week.

Like Florida, Arizona and Texas, South Carolina is one of the states that was quick to reopen its economy and has now seen a rapid rise in new COVID-19 cases even as the pandemic has slowed elsewhere in the country.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control announced 1,755 new confirmed cases of coronavirus and 19 more deaths on Tuesday. That brings the total number of confirmed cases since the outbreak began to 36,399 and confirmed deaths to 739, according to the latest NBC News tally.

Expecting an avalanche of visitors, Myrtle Beach’s city leaders were expected Thursday to follow the lead of nearby North Myrtle Beach and pass a vote requiring visitors to wear face masks in all retail, service and food establishments.

"I think the mask order is crucial, especially this weekend," Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune said on MSBNC. "You know, hindsight is 2020, our hotels opened back up about four weeks ago, I wish we had done it then. But we didn't have the same issues as we do today. So we are seeing increases in cases, and I think we have to do this tomorrow."

The drive to get people to wear masks has, of late, been driven by Republicans who had previously been reluctant to weigh in on that contentious issue. And it has taken on a new urgency as the nationwide death toll from COVID-19 rose overnight to 128,363 and the total number of confirmed cases climbed to 2,653,591, new NBC News figures show.

President Donald Trump has, thus far, has been reluctant to wear one. But in an interview Wednesday with Fox Business Network, Trump said he's "all for masks" but does not think they should be mandatory for people in public places.

It remains to be seen whether Trump will don one Friday when he travels to South Dakota for an Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore. The state's Republican governor, Kristi Noem, said authorities will be handing out masks but not requiring people to socially distance.

Other Republicans are actively urging their constituents to wear masks.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican and ally of President Donald Trump, is embarking on a statewide “flyaround” to encourage residents to start wearing masks.

“Wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash your hands, and continue to follow the guidance provided by public health officials,” Kemp said earlier this week.

Kemp also stopped short of mandating masks, but he’s been practicing what he’s been preaching and wearing one at public events.

Other top Republicans, from Senate Majority Mitch McConnell to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have also been urging their constituents to wear masks.

"It wouldn't hurt him politically and it certainly wouldn’t hurt us economically and would probably help," former Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said Wednesday on CNBC.

Vice President Mike Pence, who was harshly criticized for not wearing a mask during meetings and photo opportunities, has also started wearing one while out in public.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has gone as far as recommending that Trump set an example for the nation by wearing a mask.

"The president has plenty of admirers," Alexander said. "They would follow his lead."

But it remains to be seen whether Trump will don one Friday when he travels to South Dakota for an Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore. The state's Republican governor, Kristi Noem, said authorities will be handing out masks but not requiring people to socially distance.

The grim new coronavirus numbers and renewed drive to get Americans to wear masks comes after Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, delivered a stark warning to Congress about the dangerous trajectory of this disease.

“We’re now having 40-plus thousand new cases a day,” Fauci said Tuesday. “I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around, and so I’m very concerned.”

Texas, Florida and Arizona, in particular, have seen an explosion in new cases of late, forcing the Republican governors of those early-to-open states to close bars and other businesses to slow down the spread.

Arizona shattered its single-day record for new COVID-19 cases with 4,877 tallied on Wednesday along with 88 more deaths, NBC News reported. The new numbers came out as Pence was flying to the state to meet with Gov. Doug Ducey and get a coronavirus progress report.

Texas on Wednesday reported 6,822 new cases and 56 deaths, Florida had 6,563 news cases and 145 deaths, and California, whose Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has also scaled back the reopening of some counties, reported 4,857 new cases and 63 deaths.

But even states like Ohio, which had taken aggressive steps early on to slow the pandemic, are suddenly seeing the biggest jumps in the number of new cases since Gov. Mike DeWine began reopening the state on May 1. There were 9,779 new cases in just the past two weeks, NBC News figures show.

"We cannot test our way out of the current outbreak," Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Dr. Brett Giroir said Wednesday. "We must be disciplined about behavior, especially around the July 4th holiday."

Fauci's science-based warnings and criticism of states that reopened too soon continued to be greeted with skepticism by key GOP leaders like Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

"He doesn't know what he's talking about," Patrick, who is not a doctor, said of Fauci in a Fox News interview Tuesday.

In April, when Abbott first started reopening Texas, Patrick caught flak for suggesting that senior citizens would be willing to die for the U.S. to "get back to work."

In Florida, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said Wednesday they're closing the beaches but keeping businesses open and strictly enforcing safety protocols to combat the coronavirus cases that continue to surge despite the hot and humid weather that many experts said would slow or kill the virus.

Of the new cases in Broward County, 30 percent "happened in the last two weeks," Trantalis told MSBNC. "You know, you’ve been talking about the surge in all these new states, where are they? They’re all in hot, humid environments. So, what happens to that theory?"

States like New York and New Jersey, which were hard hit in the early days of the pandemic and managed to flatten the curve, have also been tapping the brakes in recent days on reopening bars and eateries.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday said the resumption of indoor dining, which was supposed to start next week, has been postponed indefinitely.

“We particularly see problems revolving around people going back to bars and restaurants indoors," de Blasio said. "Indoors is the problem more and more. The science is showing it more and more. So I want to make very clear: We cannot go ahead at this point in time with indoor dining in New York City.”