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Charleston beach islands restrict access, barriers and checkpoints to be set up

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Folly Beach is restricting access to the island until March 31. A checkpoint near Oak Island Drive near the beach entrance started Friday afternoon, March 20, 2020. The checkpoint will be set up daily from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The beaches are shutting down just one day after officials said they would try to stay open. Flagrant disregard of keeping a safe distance on the sands during the recent sunny days helped spur the reversal.

Folly Beach City Council on Friday morning restricted access to the entire island from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. until at least March 31. 

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Dollie Starsmeare and her daughter Andrea Cote are visiting from out of town and renting a place on Folly Beach. The visitors said they might leave early because of the coronavirus as they talk with officials at a Folly Beach checkpoint restricting access to the island on Friday, March 20, 2020. The checkpoint will be set up daily from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. "No matter what, we can get through this." Starsmeare said. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

Isle of Palms City Council and Sullivan's Island also temporarily restricted access, starting Saturday.

Sullivan's Island initially voted at an emergency meeting Friday morning to leave the beaches open but enforce existing rules on crowd size, then held another emergency meeting in the afternoon after learning Isle of Palms and Folly Beach were closing beaches and followed suit.

"All those folks were going to be heading our way," said Sullivan's Island Mayor Patrick O'Neil.

Edisto Beach also restricted access to the town and its beaches starting Saturday. The state park remained open.

Hilton Head Island closed its beaches, also starting Saturday. 

Meanwhile, Gov. Henry McMaster ordered the State Law Enforcement Division and local law enforcement to disperse crowds of 10 or more on the beaches and those not practicing social distancing of six feet apart. McMaster said he didn't object to local governments restricting access.

The town decisions came amid residents' calls to restrict beachgoers and social media posts showing tightly crowded people sunbathing on the beaches. At least one of those posts was from Sullivan's Island, and residents texted each other as they watched the morning town meeting on livestream.

"Our town kicked the ball," said resident Jim Courtovich after Sullivan's Island's morning meeting. "Just stunning."

In the afternoon, the Town Council agreed to close Sullivan's Island beaches to visitors and residents alike from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

The Folly Beach vote was unanimous, and included barricading the island as has been done in the past during and after hurricanes.

Barricades and a checkpoint will be set up on the James Island side of Little Oak Island Drive as a means of controlling who gets onto the island and who does not for the protection of residents and to make sure city resources are not overrun.

The officers who will be manning the checkpoints have enough personal protective equipment, according to Folly Beach Director of Public Safety Andrew Gilreath.

Residents and property owners will need to bring two forms of identification, such as a driver’s license, utility bill, deed, tax bill, lease or other documents. Guests can travel in the same vehicle. Renters or hotel guests must show a booking confirmation or contract at the checkpoint.

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Folly Beach is restricting access to the island until March 31. A checkpoint near Oak Island Drive near the beach entrance started Friday afternoon, March 20, 2020. The checkpoint will be set up daily from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Passes will be available in front of City Hall, 21 Center St., for family or caretakers from 2-5 p.m. Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday. Outside those hours, residents or property owners should call 843-588-7006.

"If you don't live here, you don't get here," Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin said during the meeting, which was livestreamed and watched live by more than 200 people.

He told The Post and Courier later, "It's a hard time, with all the non-compliance of social distancing. We're trying to do the best we can to keep our citizens safe."

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Mark Winslade (left) counts people going in and out of Bert's Market to keep a limit to 10 people inside the store on Friday, March 20, 2020. The Folly Beach entrance is now limited to locals and renters on the island. "It's like Christmas Eve with locals," Winslade said. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

Isle of Palms will restrict non-residents and people who don't work on the island from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, starting Saturday morning. The restrictions will last for two weeks. Residents with parking stickers or proof of residence will still be allowed on the island, along with short-term renters, employees of island businesses, medical personnel such as caretakers and contractors.

Also allowed on the island: property owners and friends or family of residents, but they need to be with a resident with proof of residency.

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Public gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited. Island officials said they were not trying to stop people from walking the beach, but crowds need to be controlled.

"What this portrays to our residents and our businesses is that we’re still working and rentals are still coming. We just can’t have the beaches overloaded like they’ve been,” IOP Mayor Jimmy Carroll said in an emergency council meeting.

Among other popular South Carolina beach towns, Edisto Beach restricted access to its beach for 14 days starting Saturday. Residents, workers and guests of residents in a vehicle with them are exempted.

Hilton Head Island officials were to announce potential restriction Friday afternoon, said spokeswoman Carolyn Grant.

Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea said the city has stepped up beach patrols to encourage social distancing, but there was no plan to close the beaches.

Along the Grand Strand, with 60-mile stretch of beaches and Myrtle Beach at the center, stopping the flow of people is more challenging. Unlike barrier islands with one or two bridges, there are many routes in and out of Myrtle Beach.

Kruea said that closing beaches and outdoor spaces "is not the medical advice that has come down from state and national experts."

Experts have recommended staying at home and keeping a 6-foot distance in public between other people. Reports from outlets like the Myrtle Beach Sun News have shown beachgoers closely clustered together.

The abrupt moves came after all Charleston County parks were closed starting Friday — including all four of its popular beach parks. The announcement came a day after the park commission announced all its parks would stay partially open and hours after it announced a dozen other closings.

The decision put an immediate crimp on both Folly and Isle of Palms, where the county parks provide both parking and bathrooms. The cascade of closures in response to the coronavirus was a stunning turnaround from Thursday.

Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission officials couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

In a release, the commission said it shuttered the parks based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and recommendation from the McMaster's office.

No such recommendation came from the governor’s office, said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes.

"While the governor's office did not recommend that they close those parks, we certainly recognize they were well within their rights to make those decisions," Symmes said.

Last week, groups claimed on social media they were canceling events based on the governor’s recommendations. While some of those groups had consulted with the governor’s office, the cancellations were not recommended at that time, Symmes said then.

David Bennett, the commission executive director, said the decision was made because the parks couldn't meet their standard of providing a clean and safe environment for staff and guests given the high volume of visitors and based on the governor's social distancing recommendations.

"Our parks are places people want to gather, and right now with the combination of school being out, other events and spaces being canceled or closed, spring break and the warm weather we are seeing a high volume of visitors, and this would only go against the recommendations we are following from the CDC to encourage social distancing," he said.

The commission has 34 parks or centers, but programs at its indoors facilities already have been canceled.

That reversal came after McMaster invoked rarely used emergency powers to give the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control more leverage to deal with the rapidly spreading new coronavirus.

Caitlin Byrd, Chloe Johnson, David Slade and Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.

Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

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