MURRELLS INLET — As motorcycles and other vehicles sat at a standstill along U.S. Highway 17 and hundreds of people walked along the road to go from bar to bar, the Myrtle Beach Bike Week festivities had just begun.
Tourists from across South Carolina and the country walked back and forth across Horry and Georgetown counties. They went from Suck Bang Blow to the Beaver Bar to other well-known biker bars.
With 600 people filling up Suck Bang Blow on May 8, bartender Rose Karol still said it was a slow day.
Hundreds of thousands of people could visit the Myrtle Beach area over Harley Week, and officials are prepared for even higher numbers this year as more people are vaccinated and COVID-19 restrictions ease up.
Though Georgetown County saw a larger influx of people, neither Georgetown or Horry counties have mask mandates in place.
"I could care less for the masks," said Sheila Webster of Chesterfield County. She repeated debunked claims that masks and the vaccine won't protect the public.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released evidence that face coverings, social distancing and COVID-19 vaccines are effective in preventing the spread of the virus.
Vaccine skepticism runs high in South Carolina, and public health leaders are concerned about reaching herd immunity. Seventy percent of the population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, according to Johns Hopkins University.
About 35 percent of South Carolinians have completed their COVID-19 vaccines, according to the most recent data from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Suck Bang Blow's employees were not required to wear masks, Karol said.
While no citations were issued for COVID-19 reasons, May 7-9, the Georgetown County Sheriff's Office handed out 315 tickets, 146 warnings and arrested two people. And Horry County saw a majority of its 51 cases tied to speeding.
While not everyone agreed as strongly with Webster, most people in attendance said they were ready to get back to normal.
Chris Young, an avid biker since he was 5, said he's followed COVID-19 regulations but hasn't let it stop him.
"I guess everybody has their own opinions on (COVID-19)," Young said. "I didn't let it stop me as much as everybody else."
Young said he has attended bike rallies throughout the country, from Daytona Beach in Florida to Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.
Sturgis in 2020 was reported as a superspreader event, with close to 500,000 people in attendance, according to The Washington Post.
While Murrells Inlet was populated over the weekend, the Rat Hole in the Myrtle Beach area did not see as many people.
Rat Hole co-owner Buster Brown said the weekend of May 14-16 is when the establishment will likely see an influx of people due to permits with the county.
Horry County's special event permits allow events for seven consecutive days, which means the Rat Hole could not start events until May 10 if owners wanted to host events during the main weekend of Harley Week, May 15-16.
According to the Horry County website, the Rat Hole, Suck Bang Blow and Broken Spokes have special event permits for May 10-16.
The Beaver Bar in Georgetown County also has a special event permit for May 7-16, Zoning Administrator Kristal Infinger said. She added that Georgetown allows permits for up 14 consecutive days.
The Rat Hole did not always have to get a special event permit, Brown said, but Horry County started requiring vendors to get additional permits, and the special event permit requirement followed. Brown added that the Rat Hole use to have events for two weeks.
"The county said, 'We're gonna regulate you, as well, because what you're doing is you're putting on an entertainment venue as a special event' — which is really what we do," Brown said.
"So now, in order for me to do a rodeo on my own property, I have to pull a special event permit through Horry County."
When asked if they planned to follow any COVID-19 regulations, Brown said they are following county recommendations.