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Folly Beach bars visitors again during coronavirus pandemic hours after reopening island

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Thom Piragnoli and his wife Elisa, along with other Folly Beach residents, protested Saturday as the island's beaches were reopened amid the global coronavirus outbreak. Brad Nettles/Staff

FOLLY BEACH — The Edge of America was opened up to visitors Saturday morning but locked down again by nightfall.

After beachgoers rushed to the waterline and residents protested the city's decision to reopen to guests after some legal confusion, the council voted unanimously to close the coast to out-of-towners again.

City Council had rolled back its March 20 ban on beach access Friday in response to a nonbinding opinion from Attorney General Alan Wilson saying only the governor can implement a stay-at-home order. Gov. Henry McMaster extended the existing state of emergency Saturday but didn't command South Carolinians to avoid public areas as the state recorded 660 total coronavirus cases and the nation surpassed 120,000.

On Saturday, McMaster issued an executive order granting the Department of Health and Environmental Control "emergency powers" to continue keeping visitors from nursing homes and mobilizing National Guard troops to "take necessary and prudent actions" to protect residents. The order also extended school closures through the end of April and required first responders to question 911 callers about COVID-19 symptoms.

Mayor Tim Goodwin said the city had been speaking with attorneys throughout the night as municipalities across the state wrestled with Wilson's announcement that residents could sue those that tried to prevent the coronavirus' spread with unlawful mandates.

Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms had already chosen to keep restrictions in place. Police stationed on the road into Sullivan's were turning away visitors.

Edisto Beach also retracted its restrictions, and the council will meet Monday to discuss further plans. 

Word from McMaster, who extended the existing state of emergency Saturday, would be a key consideration in changing Edisto's regulation, Mayor Jane Darby said.

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Terry Welch with Folly Beach Public Safety patrols the beach Saturday as visitors flocked to Folly Beach after City Council rolled back its ban on beach access, when city and South Carolina officials debated whether local governments can force visitors from public spaces. Brad Nettles/ Staff

"We're regrouping right now," Darby said. "Just tell those people at Folly, don't come south."

Barricades were resurrected along Folly's entrance by 5 p.m., Goodwin said, and no new short-term rentals will be allowed beginning Sunday through April 30.

But as officials begged South Carolinians to stay home and avoid close contact with others, hundreds of visitors flocked to Folly for a sunny Saturday by the water

"I don't run my city by social media," Goodwin said. 

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Visitors flocked to Folly Beach Saturday after City Council rolled back its ban on beach access Friday, when city and South Carolina officials debated whether local governments can force visitors from public spaces. Brad Nettles/ Staff

'I think they're crazy'

Hundreds of people took to Folly Beach to celebrate the reopening.

Some came to seize the sudden opportunity because they didn’t know how much longer the beach would be open, with the looming possibility that access could be restricted through the summer.

So they lived for today.

“I mean, we haven’t been able to go to the beach lately,” Brandon Thompson said. “This may be our only chance before they close up.”

When the city announced its beach restrictions a week ago, DHEC had recorded five cases in Charleston County. By Saturday, over 100 county residents had tested positive for the virus.

Some people were grouped tightly in their beach chairs. Couples were close enough to sunbathe shoulder-to-shoulder. Many were not keeping 6 feet of distance from others as recommended by public health agencies.

While occasional Folly Beach police officers patrolled the roads in ATVs and squad cars, few were seen on some stretches of the sand.

The decision to reopen the beach caused outrage for many of Folly’s homeowners as well as employees of the beach’s many tourist-centric businesses.

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Vanessa Oltmann and other Folly Beach residents protest the reopening of the island to visitors Saturday morning as officials debated whether local governments can force visitors from public spaces. Brad Nettles/ Staff

The Circle K on the island was slammed with beachgoers grabbing water, snacks and gasoline. No more than three people were allowed at a time in the store, and employees were wearing masks and gloves at checkout.

“I think they’re crazy for reopening the beach,” said Susan Kiefer, a five-year employee of the convenience store.

She was especially mad about the attorney general’s opinion that said only McMaster has the authority to declare stay-at-home orders, after several Charleston-area municipalities enacted their own.

“They’re jeopardizing our lives out here,” Kiefer said. “I’m sorry the governor’s feelings got hurt, but this isn’t safe.”

Groups of protesters gathered on the bridge leading to the beach holding picket signs with such phrases as “Folly Lives Matter” and “our health matters more than your vacation."

Ford Tanner, a new resident on Folly Beach, was protesting with roughly a dozen others. He said travelers to the beach had been yelling obscenities at them and calling them killjoys for the demonstration.

“It’s just not fair to the people who live and work on the island,” Tanner said. “People have been harassing us for speaking out.”

Some beachfront homeowners, like Banks Easterling, were shocked to see the Saturday afternoon crowds on their stretch of the beach but continued their weekend recreation.

“We were surprised to see all these people in our backyard,” Easterling said. “But we’re going to keep to ourselves and keep our distance so we can enjoy the day.”

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"SLED and Folly Beach police will have a major presence today," Charleston Sen. Marlon Kimpson, said in a tweet. "Everyone is working together to prevent Folly Beach from becoming a ground zero for CV in SC."

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Charleston County Sheriff's Office deputies helped monitor Folly Beach Saturday as visitors flocked to the island after Folly City Council rolled back its ban on beach access Friday. Brad Nettles/ Staff

Stay-at-home orders

Charleston and Columbia, the state's two largest cities, held their orders in place requiring residents to stay home, although each have broad exceptions for businesses and other entities deemed “essential” during the crisis.

Attorney General’s Office spokesman Robert Kittle previously said the office wouldn't seek injunctions against municipalities choosing to enact orders.

“We’re just providing legal guidance and letting the cities know they could be sued by their local residents," he said.

The attorney general’s opinion came at the request of state Rep. Jeff Bradley, a Beaufort County Republican, who asked if the governor’s powers preempt those of local governments during a state of emergency. State officials have said they have faith that residents will exercise common sense and follow best practices, but Lowcountry city officials say that hasn't been the case.

“I have great faith in the people of S.C.,” McMaster said Thursday. “They follow rules. They’re respectful. They’re courteous. They’re gentle. They’re smart.”

IOP's council passed a resolution Friday asking the governor to issue a mandatory, statewide order.

Mount Pleasant Town Council, on the other hand, voted down a similar resolution, disappointing some residents calling for more restrictions.

On the Grand Strand, beaches are still open, but many municipalities have passed restrictions on hotels and short-term rental properties in efforts to limit visitors coming in from outside the area.

"If they're not able to rent rooms that will cut down on the vast majority of people on the beach," said Jason Lesley with Georgetown County Sheriff's Office. 

The county acted to ban all short-term rentals through the end of April.

Law enforcement with the sheriff's office and the nearby Pawleys Island Police Department patrolled beaches to enforce restrictions issued by McMaster that prohibit gatherings of more than three people.

On the 10 miles of Myrtle Beach sands, beachgoers have been practicing social distancing and there have been no enforcement issues, said city spokesman Mark Kruea.

"So far people are voluntarily complying while they're still able to enjoy the great outdoors," he said.

Confusion on closed island

While beachgoers flocked to Folly Beach, Sullivan's Island police turned away a slew of drivers headed for the coastal town.

Diners headed to pick up their to-go orders from island restaurants reported that police had turned them away at a roadblock, suspicious that they were headed for the beach.

"I do not want to see anyone turned turned away that might be coming onto the island for food," Town Administrator Andy Benke said in an email to local businesses Thursday.

But by Friday evening, several Mex 1 Coastal Cantina customers told staff they'd been doubted at the roadblock and barely made it through, marketing director Morgan Hurley said.

According to Benke, it's up to individual officers to decide whether non-residents seem to be headed for the shore.

"I wish it was a little more objective than that," Benke said. "When four kids show up in a car with beach chairs and a cooler ... that's pretty clear."

Several takeout orders had been canceled Saturday morning, Hurley said, and he was making deliveries to Mount Pleasant.

Mex 1 whipped up an online ordering system at the pandemic's onset and takes about half its orders through it, Hurley said. They'd prepared for a downturn in business, but were counting on the town's support when they decided to stay open.

"The challenge is we've been telling customers that they can come get food," Hurley said. "It's just a waiting game at this point for all restaurants."

Other businesses have struggled to keep workers busy through the pandemic as well.

As the toll of the virus climbs, the Palmetto State's largest hospital system announced furloughs of its workers.

Prisma said the COVID-19 public health crisis has negatively impacted business operations.

"The number of elective cases, which generate a major portion of our income, has decreased dramatically in the past two weeks. Additionally, we are incurring significant new costs associated with the rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 patients who are seeking care from Prisma Health," the hospital system said in a statement.

The hospital did not say how many employees will be furloughed or for how long, but it will affect administrative, corporate and clinical employees across the entire organization.

Some employees were notified Friday and more will be issued furloughs next week.

"In order for us to take care of our patients today and the foreseeable future, we need to take this difficult measure. Once we come out of this — and we will — we can get back to business as usual," the statement said.

Jessica Holdman is a business reporter for The Post & Courier covering Columbia. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she reported on business in North Dakota for The Bismarck Tribune and has previously written for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

Reporter

Sara Coello has covered the Charleston area's justice system for The Post and Courier since September 2019. She previously covered crime and courts at The Dallas Morning News.

Thomas Novelly is a political reporter based in Charleston. He also covers the military community and veterans throughout South Carolina. Previously, he wrote for the Courier Journal in Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

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