COLUMBIA — South Carolinians should stay away from big gatherings over the Fourth of July weekend and celebrate responsibly, preferably by staying home and watching fireworks from their vehicles, the state's public health agency said Tuesday.
Dr. Joan Duwve, the state's public health director, particularly cautioned against going to South Carolina's coast, which has seen some of the largest increases in COVID-19 cases.
"We've all given so much for so long, and we all want to be at our beautiful beaches, at our parks, our friends' houses, our block parties and community events, but I'm asking all of us to stay vigilant in the fight against this deadly virus," she said.
For those who choose not to simply watch fireworks alone on their own TV, Duwve again urged South Carolinians to wear a face mask and stay at least six feet from others.
"That's how we 'Stay SC Strong,'" she said.
The advice comes as the daily report of South Carolinians newly testing positive for COVID-19 has repeatedly set records in the past two weeks, topping 1,700 on Tuesday. Nearly 36,300 people total have been diagnosed since early March, and 735 of them have died.
The numbers are rising the steepest among young people. While they are least likely to get seriously ill, and many don't even know they're infected and never show symptoms, they can pass it on to people who are very susceptible to the disease becoming fatal — the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
South Carolinians ages 21-30 account for 22 percent of everyone diagnosed over the past four months, the highest percentage for any age group, but a fraction of 1 percent of them have died. Two-thirds of all deaths are ages 71 and older.
While Gov. Henry McMaster has repeatedly rejected calls to impose a statewide mandate for face masks, the Republican governor has pleaded for South Carolinians to "follow the rules" and wear them, noting young people can unknowingly infect their older relatives and neighbors who "might die from the thing."
McMaster's spokesman said the governor agrees with the request to celebrate responsibly.
"Obviously, we're not saying everyone has to stay at home, but we do know that’s the safest place right now," said spokesman Brian Symmes. "If you do travel, follow the advice of the public health experts" to socially distance, wear masks and wash hands frequently.
The state's chief epidemiologist, Dr. Linda Bell, has applauded cities and towns that have approved local ordinances requiring masks within their boundaries. McMaster has said they have the authority to do so, but he maintains a statewide rule is constitutionally questionable and unenforceable anyway.
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control said it supports the cities and towns across the state that have canceled fireworks displays and other group celebrations.
South Carolina's tourism industry, an economic driver for the state, is still reeling, nearly two months after McMaster began allowing businesses and beaches to reopen.
About 55 percent of hotel rooms statewide were occupied the week of June 20. While that's better than both the national and Southeast averages, that's still not profitable for most hotels. Normally, the state's occupancy average would be around 80 percent, said Duane Parrish, director of the state's tourism agency.
"In the crawl-walk-run process of coming back, we’re crawling a lot faster now," he said. "It’s a long way off of where we’d normally be."
While it won't help the economy if people stay home, Parrish said he agrees with DHEC's overarching message to avoid crowds.
"The real message is, if you decide to go to the beach, just like if you decide to go anywhere else, maintain your social distance and wear a mask. You can get it at the beach, or a park, or a restaurant, or your neighbor’s house," Parrish said. "You just have to be smart, no matter what you do or where you go."
Charleston tourism officials agreed.
"Anything we can do to encourage people to be more careful is a good thing," Helen Hill, CEO at Explore Charleston, said of DHEC's message.
But people could still keep their holiday weekend reservations while following the guidance, she said.
For example, “you might be renting a villa at Wild Dunes, but you stay at that home with your family,” Hill said.
Occupancy rates in Charleston-area lodgings are expected to be in the low 70s this weekend, which is better than they have been, but still far below normal for a typical July Fourth weekend.
"Small gains are a home run right now,” Hill said. “We’re learning to be very satisfied with incremental growth.”
Parrish recognized that a good portion of people aren't willing to travel anywhere yet, but for those who are, the state hopes they travel to or stay in South Carolina. The coast makes up two-thirds of the state's tourism business, when including not only beaches, but golf and other attractions.
"People want to travel. This is beach weather. It’s that time of year. People were cooped up for two months. They want to be outdoors," he said, adding they can do that responsibly.
Emily Williams contributed to this report.