The Town of Hilton Head Island announced Friday it will be closing all public beaches after there were numerous reports of spring breakers swarming in large groups on beaches amid the coronavirus (known officially as 2019-nCoV or COVID-19) outbreak.
Hilton Head Mayor John McCann announced the town will be closing all beach parking starting tomorrow through the next 60 days. They will enforce this by towing cars parked in all public beach areas.
When asked if people are allowed to walk on beaches while practicing social distancing, McCann said they are working with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office on this. He did provide further clarity on what exactly that means.
“Hilton Head beaches are closed,” McCann said.
However, McCann said they can’t enforce these measures inside gated communities such as Sea Pines, Palmetto Dunes, Shipyard, Port Royal and Hilton Head Plantation.
McCann’s announcement was met with sharp criticism on social media from residents who did not understand why he couldn’t take other actions to prevent large groups of people from swarming the beaches, especially considering most of the complaints involved college spring breakers from out of town.
“Thanks tourists & teenagers! No beach for 60 days,” one resident said.
“Why are you closing the beaches? This is a complete over reaction,” another resident commented. “Can’t you simply reduce and cite large gatherings? Do you have any data that this makes us safer or are you simply reacting to a few complaints and penalizing everyone else?”
Meanwhile, the Hilton Head mayor has not taken any steps to limit tourism on the island. In fact, in Friday’s press conference, McCann encouraged visitors to come to Hilton Head and enjoy the “natural beauty” of the island. He mentioned that visitors could come and play golf and tennis.
McCann also encouraged that people use Hilton Head’s 60 miles of bike paths — which are far more narrow than beaches.
The announcement conflicted with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office news release earlier Friday that said they would be patrolling the beaches to crack down on spring breakers gathered in large groups. In this morning’s press release, the sheriff’s office encouraged residents to use the beaches during this crisis, while complying to Gov. Henry McMaster’s orders.
Earlier Friday, Gov. Henry McMaster tweeted that he ordered the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) and local law enforcement “to disperse crowds gathered on our state’s beaches. “
The latest order said it is unlawful to “congregate, unless authorized or in their homes, in groups of three or more and to refuse to disperse upon order of a law enforcement officer” during a state of emergency.
If convicted of committing an illegal act under a state of emergency in South Carolina, violators could face up to 30 days in jail or a fine.
The reports of large gatherings on the beach come as a particular concern in Beaufort County – where one-third of the population is older than 60 – that has seen a steady rise of COVID-19 cases. In the last week, the county went from zero cases on Friday to seven cases on Thursday. It’s now one of the top hotspots in South Carolina, but well behind Kershaw County with 28 of the 60 cases.
For these reasons, residents are worried seeing photos of college kids at Coligny Beach like it were any other spring break.
“Something must be done,” a concerned resident told FITSNews. She’s worried that many tourists aren’t cancelling their vacation plans in upcoming weeks as the virus gets worse. Hilton Head is home to about 40,000 residents, but sees about 2.5 million tourists a year.
“Well I personally have cancelled three trips I had since I was told to stay home,” she said. “I’m just worried for our compromised and elderly neighbors.”
The latest CDC research shows that coronavirus is hitting elderly the hardest in the United States, like it did in China. Though, a higher percentage of millennials are being hospitalized for the disease.
The CDC research (encompassing more than 2,000 patients in the United States) showed that 49 percent of cases were people over 55 years old. Mortality rates are highest among the elderly in the U.S., as they were in China. About 80 percent of the deaths so far were people over 60.
On Thursday, Isle of Palms council members voted to “restrict non-resident access to the island for the next 14 days between the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” Moultrie News reported. Sullivans Island beaches remained open as of Friday.
Tybee Island, Georgia, located within sight of Hilton Head’s south end, closed its beaches on Friday, WSAV reported.
In Myrtle Beach, Mayor Brenda Bethune said they have no plans to close beaches, but because of spring break there will be large presence of police patrolling the beaches, WMBF News reported. Myrtle Beach Sun News reported that over 100 students were seen partying on the beach Thursday.
McMaster has not given any indication that he will close South Carolina beaches.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an award-winning journalist from Kansas who has worked for newspapers in Missouri, Illinois, and South Carolina before making the switch to FITS. She currently lives on Hilton Head Island where she enjoys beach life. Want to contact Mandy? Send your story ideas, comments, suggestions and tips to [email protected].