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As Myrtle Beach cases spike, 6 states report outbreaks or issue SC travel warnings

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The tables have turned in South Carolina.

In late March, when New York City and other parts of the Northeast were being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Henry McMaster ordered visitors from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to self-quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in the Palmetto State. A later order barred New Yorkers from getting hotel rooms. 

Now, those same states are telling travelers coming from South Carolina to self-quarantine. Seven other states with infection rates higher than 10 percent, including North Carolina, are included in the joint travel advisory that took effect Thursday. 

The announcement comes in the same week that COVID-19 cases connected to vacations to Myrtle Beach have been reported by health departments in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. 

The Mountain State reported its first cases linked to the Grand Strand last week. During a media briefing Wednesday, that state's Gov. Jim Justice advised people with plans to visit the South Carolina tourist hub to reconsider. 

“I strongly would tell you that, if you’re thinking about going to Myrtle Beach, rethink what you’re doing,” he said. “And if you have been, go get tested."

As of Wednesday, 11 West Virginia counties had reported outbreaks tied to Myrtle Beach travel. 

Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky issued a similar warning during a briefing the same afternoon. If Kentuckians know that a place has been the source of outbreaks, "Don't go," he said. 

Beshear called out Myrtle Beach specifically, and Kentucky's public health commissioner, Dr. Steven Stack, went on to describe outbreaks linked to the destination as "a serious threat" to the state's health and wellness. 

"We have now identified, both in West Virginia and Kentucky, numerous people who have returned from Myrtle Beach with COVID-19," Stack said. "I have to continue to urge and beg folks to be careful." 

Belmont County, Ohio, also reported a Myrtle Beach-linked outbreak this week after a group of teenagers traveled to the Palmetto State the weekend of June 13. 

South Carolina tourism director Duane Parrish said that, while he understands those states' concerns, he wished officials would focus on messages about mask-wearing and social distancing. 

"I’d rather governors issue guidance about how to travel safely than tell them where to not go," Parrish said on Thursday. 

Other travel industry officials have echoed that sentiment, putting emphasis on the potential impact to the economy and tourism-related jobs. 

"States imposing new travel restrictions is not the direction we want to be heading for jobs and the economy," Tori Emerson Barnes of the U.S. Travel Association said in response to the travel advisory from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. 

Karen Riordan, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, put out a statement on Thursday stating that the "focus should not be on individual cities or states, but rather on educating citizens on how to travel responsibly to protect themselves and others." 

At this point, South Carolina tourism leaders are pressing ahead with plans to bring back tourists and try to recoup some of the more than $3 billion in lost visitor revenue incurred because of COVID-19. 

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Parrish said his agency has not pulled back on any advertising in light of the news of linked cases. Myrtle Beach has temporarily called off social media advertising to West Virginia but that "will resume soon, when it is appropriate," Riordan said.

Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia all fall within South Carolina's "drive market," areas within reasonable road trip distance of the state. All advertising dollars have been focused on those markets since the state launched its recovery marketing campaign. 

Earlier in the pandemic, South Carolina paused paid tourism advertising altogether. Promotions didn't start up again until May 1, when the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism introduced its "Dream Now, Discover Later" campaign aimed at getting people thinking about future travel. 

Advertisements that actually encouraged bookings started rolling out to the drive market at the beginning of June. 

Myrtle Beach's travel demand came back at a rate no one had expected, Riordan said. Just a couple months ago, the destination's hotels were empty when the city prohibited new bookings for all of April. 

Now, Myrtle Beach has the highest occupancy rates in the state. Last week, about 66 percent of the hotel rooms there were filled. 

While occupancy rates are still below what they were at this time last year, they were well above what most destinations saw last week. Average hotel occupancy was about 56 percent statewide and 44 percent across the U.S. 

Parrish also noted that this is the first time he's seen Myrtle Beach have the highest average daily rate in the state. Typically, Charleston or Hilton Head Island holds that distinction, but the Grand Strand hotels' ability to charge a competitive rate shows just how much bookings have come back. 

"It was this enormous whoosh of pent-up demand, and no one saw that coming," Riordan said. 

That can probably be credited to a confluence of the time of year, the area's popularity with road trippers and its affordability, Parrish said. Travelers are making last-minute booking decisions, which has likely made the rush of travelers feel more sudden. 

"Our hoteliers were amazed," Riordan said. "We still don't even have all of our workers back yet." 

Parrish's department is now keeping track of any states that ask travelers from South Carolina to quarantine or report coronavirus cases linked to trips in the state, but the primary reason promotion plans could change, he said, is if any states in the drive market were to implement new stay-at-home orders. 

Right now, Riordan said, Myrtle Beach's travel sector is focusing on getting masks in the hands of small business owners and sharing messaging about mask-wearing with tourists and locals.

A new website, "Greater Grand Strand is Open," asks residents and visitors, as well as businesses, to sign a pledge saying they'll take the necessary precautions when they're out in public. 

About 200 businesses are listed on the site as having signed the promise. The list of visitors on the website has about 60 names.

Riordan said that, while they are fielding some questions from prospective visitors about coronavirus-related precautions, the No. 1 questions they get is still, "Are the beaches open?" 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-607-0894. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

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