MYRTLE BEACH — Thousands of bikers, welcomed or not, will rumble their way to Grand Strand communities through most of May as Horry County comes to grips with tradition-rich riders yearning for outdoor entertainment.
Communities like Atlantic Beach, which traditionally host events such as the Memorial Day Bikefest, which is formally canceled this year, are buckling down as the area prepares to host the largest crowds this area has seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We don't want them here," said Atlantic Beach police clerk Kim Mujas. "We hope by next year we can open up full swing, but not this year."
Bikers from up and down the eastern seaboard, from as close as North Carolina and as far as Virginia and the Washington, D.C., area — all moderate to high places for COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — are expected to flock to outdoor beer gardens and concerts planned for Myrtle Beach Bike Week Spring Rally, known as Harley Week, planned for May 7-16.
They'll head to places like The Beaver Bar on Murrells Inlet and its nearby neighbor Suck Bang Blow, which had a run-in with the law during the 2020 Spring Rally for violating Gov. Henry McMaster's executive order against large groups congregating during the pandemic. The bar was fined more than $17,000 for the violation.
According to the Department of Health and Environmental Control, 30 percent of South Carolina residents have completed their COVID-19 vaccination, which means herd immunity is still a ways away. Seventy percent of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Less than a third of the state’s eligible population is fully vaccinated. Yet South Carolina’s providers were giving fewer vaccines in late April than they did in early March when eligibility was widely expanded, according to data from the CDC.
"The potential is extremely high for a lot of visitors. ... We're not unused to those kind of numbers," said Randy Webster, assistant county administrator for public safety. "But I think moving forward, the vaccine issue won't really come into play, except it could end up generating higher visiting numbers."
When asked how the county plans to prepare for these events in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the county said it will maintain similar public safety measures as in years' past.
"We're looking forward to this year being a bit of a challenge with all the festivities being canceled, folks are still coming," said Horry County Police Chief Joseph Hill. "They may not be in Atlantic Beach, they're gonna be in other places."
Atlantic Beach Bikefest, commonly referred to as Black Bike Week, traditionally happens Memorial Day weekend. In past years, visitors became so unruly that the county implemented a traffic loop that moved traffic in one direction on Myrtle Beach's Ocean Boulevard and "looped" it around other roads, crippling visiting traffic and wreaking havoc for unsuspecting tourists staying at oceanfront hotels.
The event drew hundreds of law enforcement personnel from around the state to assist the State Law Enforcement Division in maintaining peace on the streets.
In more recent years, barricades were placed along the loop but did not block intersections. It allowed traffic to flow normally, but police were ready to institute the loop if crowds got out of control.
Cpl. Tom Vest. of the Myrtle Beach Police Department said police will have additional presence during both rallies and that the city has plans in place. He said additional information would be presented at the City Council meeting May 11.
Webster said the county is gearing up for a busy May.
"Everybody recognizes from what we've seen so far, that we are anticipating an extremely busy year for visitors that want to visit our location, and you know others that want to get out," Webster said. (We've) been cooped up for a year — myself included in that — it is time to move forward and try to get our lives back to some sort of normalcy again."