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SC tourism leaders want visitors quarantined to slow COVID-19: 'We don't want them here'

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Caitlin McDermott (from left), Christy McDermott and Colin McDermott look for shark teeth on Folly Beach after it was closed to the public due to the coronavirus on Monday, March 23, 2020. Christy and Colin were in town helping their sister, Caitlin, a College of Charleston student, move back to their home state of Pennsylvania. Lauren Petracca/Staff

The coronavirus outbreak has lawmakers in South Carolina's coastal tourism areas calling for the unimaginable — telling visitors to stay home.

Leaders in the state's top industry are asking Gov. Henry McMaster to issue an order to quarantining visitors for two weeks, a move that will surely hurt the revival of the nearly $24 billion business after the COVID-19 outbreak ends.

Myrtle Beach is taking unprecedented steps of closing hotels until May 1 and shutting down attractions, including its famous golf courses, starting Friday. And passengers arriving at Myrtle Beach's airport from coronavirus hotspots, notably from New York, are being greeted with thermometers to have their temperature taken.

"We don't want them here," state Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Myrtle Beach, said. "Tourism officials want to avoid a longer effect on our season — by infecting locals and burdening our hospitals."

Florida, Texas, Alaska and Hawaii have ordered the self quarantine of all or some visitors to their states. South Carolina tourism leaders spoke with the governor's office about a similar order that would have more enforcement than McMaster's request Wednesday that all visitors to the state self-quarantine for two weeks.

McMaster told reporters Thursday he was considering turning his request into an order, which would make traveling to South Carolina much less attractive.

"We're attempting answer those (questions) based on the science and the data," the governor said, noting input he received from local government leaders in tourism areas. "We are analyzing all that to make the right decision." 

Telling visitors to stay away from South Carolina beaches is unheard of during the generations spent building the state's reputation as a tourism draw, a vital economic move to replace manufacturing work that went overseas. So much marketing efforts and construction goes into attracting visitors to Myrtle Beach's vivid nightlife, Charleston's highly rated restaurants and Hilton Head Island's championship golf courses.

"Yes, we have spent millions on infrastructure and now we're saying not to come here, but that's the reality now," state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said. "Hopefully, it's just for the short term."

But leaders along the S.C. coast said they must protect residents in their communities, many of whom are retirees at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and dying from an infection. As the number of statewide coronavirus cases grew to 456 with nine deaths on Thursday, the Hilton Head Island town council asked McMaster to issue a stay-at-home order that includes a 14-day quarantine for all visitors. 

"It's for your own people," Rankin said of efforts to keep tourists away.

But forcing visitors into quarantine might lead some to never come back after the virus subsides.

"Everything is a risk," Rankin said. "It's a hard pill to swallow, but we don't want to have a potential surge that will hurt the entire season."

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Helen Hill, chief executive of tourism marketing group Explore Charleston, said she would support whatever the governor decides on quarantining visitors. She said that even though it may be unusual to see the travel community discouraging tourists, she does not think their message will be negative.

"It's, 'Please come visit us later,' " Hill said of a tactic similar to those used after hurricanes.

Myrtle Beach, the state's largest tourist destination, needed to act because a majority of reservations came from New York, the nation's epicenter for the outbreak, Rankin said.

"Horry folks are nearly apoplectic that we are a pipeline for (New York) and other high risk areas," he said. 

Passengers flying into the Myrtle Beach International Airport from "heavily impacted areas" for the coronavirus started having their temperature taken Wednesday, Horry County Department of Airports said in statement. The county agency did not offer details, but Rankin said flights from New York were a target. 

Anyone with a fever will be offered an ambulance ride to a hospital to get a check up, Rankin said. But passengers can decline the offer.

"It's purely voluntary," he said.

Charleston International Airport is not checking the temperature of arriving passengers, airport CEO Paul Campbell said.

This week, several of the beachfront communities near Charleston put restrictions on new check-ins. Folly Beach is prohibiting hotel reservations and short-term rental bookings, and Isle of Palms, Edisto Beach and Kiawah Island have all put restrictions on new short-term rental stays.

The city of Charleston has not restricted new bookings at hotels or rentals, but about 30 hotels in the county have opted to close their doors. Explore Charleston said last week that it had suspended all of its regular advertising to tourists.

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, said he did not think it is a bad idea for McMaster to consider issuing a quarantine order for visitors, considering the United States just passed China in having the most cases in the world.

"We're basically shut down anyway," he said. "We're heading down that road."

Emily Williams contributed to this report

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