Isle of Palms coronavirus sign

The Isle of Palms sign at one entrance to the island said "Stay Home" but there were plenty of people on the beach Wednesday, March 18 2020. David Slade/Staff

Maybe some people aren’t taking this whole pandemic thing seriously enough.

Last Thursday, kids were out of school and businesses were shutting down in the name of social distancing to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The message was clear: Stay away from each other.

So what did some folks do? Well, they decided this crisis looked a lot like an unscheduled vacation ... and packed themselves onto the beach at Isle of Palms. “It looked like the Fourth of July out there,” Mayor Jimmy Carroll says, “like the video of those spring breakers down in Florida last week.”

Yes, and it was just about as smart as those knuckleheads proved to be. As Gov. Henry McMaster said Monday, it was “both irresponsible and selfish” of residents to ignore his orders against gathering. And this is why we can’t have nice things.

The next day, IOP City Council decided to limit access to the island and allow only residents and renters to cross the bridge. Others islands followed suit, and that started a whole new thing around Charleston. That is, the parks are closed — but should that include public beaches?

You’d think small barrier island communities would have an easier time with self-isolation than other places. Fewer people, fewer businesses. But no. People are mad that they can’t get to the beach, and islanders complain that tourists — specifically, from COVID-19 hot spots — are coming into their neighborhoods and camping out in short-term rentals.

Meanwhile, county officials are quietly complaining these islands technically have no constitutional authority to shut down state roads. Which is a fair point, but apparently extraordinary times excuse extraordinary measures.

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On Tuesday, Folly Beach ordered short-term rentals to shut down until April 30. That’s a step other islands have been unwilling to take so far. And it won’t do much to stop the complaint that Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin heard from one resident that a vacation home owner from New York canceled his tenants’ trips and instead moved in himself.

Seabrook Island residents have complained about this practice being allowed to continue, as have Isle of Palms residents. Carroll says council discussed canceling short-term rentals, but decided those property owners should be able to do a little business and stay afloat — as the restaurants are doing. All those renters, the mayor said, are stuck inside their houses just like everyone else anyway. And it’s certainly not as dangerous as thousands congregating in the surf.

Which brings us back to island access. Mount Pleasant residents were particularly miffed about the IOP shutdown, some suggesting the town retaliate by closing their borders to islanders. Mayor Will Haynie, who’s taking this more seriously than some, said that wasn’t an option. He did, however, urge the islands to consider their neighbors who might need a therapeutic stroll on the beach.

“I understand that the attraction to the beaches was a strain on the islands during this vital threat. ... People were not adhering to social distancing advisories and that is a huge problem,” Haynie says. “But now with roadblocks we see the irony of island residents afforded a bubble of protection when those very residents need unrestricted access into our town for essentials like medicine, doctors, hospitals and, yes, even toilet paper.”

Carroll says he understands why people are upset, but his council saw no choice. The island has a small staff of public safety personnel and every call to a crowded beach was another chance a first-responder would end up quarantined.

“We’ve got six people on a shift, three shifts, and it only takes one of them to get sick and it spreads like wildfire,” the mayor says. “We’d get wiped out.”

That’s the thing people don’t seem to get here. Even if some are willing to gamble on catching the virus, the whole point of all this turmoil — and social distancing — is to stop the spread to other people.

The islands are not in lockstep on how to accomplish that, because nobody knows exactly what’s right. As Mayor Goodwin says, this is unprecedented.

Still, one thing should be clear: When a highly communicable killer pandemic is sweeping the country, that’s no day at the beach.

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