To Beach or Not to Beach? What to Expect during a Pandemic this Memorial Day

May 22, 2020

Even before the much-anticipated Memorial Day weekend, Lowcountry beaches once vacant because of a potentially deadly pandemic, were crammed with people. 

"We were over run," says Isle of Palms Mayor Jimmy Carroll.

"People came out in droves that we haven't seen before in my 60 plus years of living on the Isle of Palms.

The Beach Debate

Pictures of the island showing tents and bathing suit clad bodies dotting the coast blew up on social media.  Some saw families responsibly enjoying the sun and sand.  Others saw a simmering petri dish.

It seems going to newly re-opened beaches during a pandemic has become as divisive as choosing whether to wear a protective mask.

Vehicles lined up on the Isle of Palms as drivers search for parking
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

But Mayor Carroll says the virus has just exposed a pre-existing condition, too many people without enough parking. 

Too Many People or Too Little Parking?

People wear masks while renting chairs and tents on the Isle of Palms

He says the island's 1500 parking spaces were all filled last Saturday with individual cars likely carrying several people, each seeking their own private piece of pristine beach.  What they got, was plenty of company.

The situation got so intense, the mayor called an emergency meeting, on a Saturday night no less.  It included Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey and Sheriff Al Cannon.

The next day, Mayor Carroll says he had additional officers, more signs and overall, more help.

"We were planning for this, this weekend," he says.  "It just came a week earlier."

So far, traffic has been better.

Courtney Stone makes parking sign to make some extra cash on her family's private property
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Out and About

"We're selling parking spots for 20 dollars apiece," says stay at home mom Courtney Stone.  She and family are taking a break from home schooling to make some extra money on their private property off Palm Boulevard.

"Yesterday the lot filled up in just about 30 minutes," she says.  It was a quick 800 bucks.

"It's really fun to get out again, you know?" says South Carolina native GiGi Glover.  She's taking a break from the beach for a little lunch from Coconut Joes.

"It's crowded, but there's a lot of social distancing.  People are practicing that."

Re-Opening Woes

But what about the upcoming Memorial Day weekend?  How will IOP fare along with the areas two other barrier islands, Sullivan's and Folly Beach?  Each has different rules on what beach goers can do as they  try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Beach goers try to social distance on IOP
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Summey says he wishes the beaches would adopt the same rules.  But he's happy they're all open again, to everyone.  There had been talk of a lawsuit.

"The problem we ran into was they were letting certain folks access it and certain folks not to," says Summey.  "That didn't seem quite fair to a lot of us."

While the governor issued an order allowing beaches to re-open, he left it up to each island to decide.  Some wanted to go about it more slowly, initially allowing only residents.

"Then we got slammed by everybody that we were elitists because we could go to the beach and they couldn't," says Carroll. 

The mayor insists that wasn't the case.  He was just trying to keep the virus contained.

What You Can Do

Beach and county leaders say they're working together to stay open and stay safe, especially this Memorial Day weekend.  They advise people to check online traffic cams before they go and keep an eye on the tides.  High tide means less beach and more difficulty social distancing.

Signs remind people how to social distance on IOP
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Nancy Grave of Mount Pleasant and her two kids have become early birds.  They're off the beach by noon.

"It's definitely getting crowded down there," she says as they head out.  "So, I think keeping the social distancing is going to be hard."

Eric Robinette is also local.  She and her crew just got to the beach.  It's after 12pm.  The parking lots are full.  But they lucked out.  Someone gave them a spot.

"We might not be here long," she says.  "We'll see."

That might be the motto this Memorial Day weekend; we'll see.  What is traditionally the unofficial start of summer, look to be anything but traditional.