MYRTLE BEACH, SC – The colorful promenade is overcrowded again, the Ferris wheel is spinning near one of the pillars, tourists are rummaging through the souvenir shops, and as always, young people are romping around in the beach bars and clubs that give the city the nickname "Dirty Myrtle "brought in.
However, some of the night owls who have come to Myrtle Beach since hotels and attractions reopened in May go home with more than just the usual sunburn, hangover, and sand in their suitcases. They bring back the corona virus.
Dozens of people who came to Myrtle Beach from West Virginia were tested positive for the corona virus upon their return. Three separate clusters of Covid-19 cases in Kentucky and at least one in Ohio have been associated with returning visitors. Public health officials across Virginia have reported similar cases. More than 20 student athletes in South Carolina became infected with the virus on a trip to the coast. And these are just a few of the clusters that have emerged.
Officials in other states are warning people to stay away from Myrtle Beach, and United Airlines has suspended the flight for the summer. "If I were you, I would consider going somewhere else," Governor Jim Justice of West Virginia said at a press conference last week.
This kind of message is hard to hear in a city heavily dependent on summer tourism, hospitality, relaxation and fun.
"It's not Myrtle Beach's fault," said Rusty Trull, 64, a cashier at Gay Dolphin Gift Cove. "These people come on weekends and mess everything up."
Gregg Smith, a member of the city council, said the problem was that young visitors obviously hadn't taken enough precautions to ensure their own safety. "Young people feel invincible," he said.
Most visitors to the promenade wore sandals or flip-flops earlier this week, but very few wore masks, even when they were brushing their shoulders with other tourists. Although there seemed to be fewer visitors than usual in early summer, the sidewalks on the city's main street were often too crowded to distance themselves socially as people strolled under a canopy of neon signs and palm trees with drinks in hand.
Myrtle Beach City Council voted on Thursday that face masks are required in stores such as retail stores and indoor restaurants. But tourists can still walk the promenade and the beach without them.
Mayor Brenda Bethune suggested in an interview earlier this week that after everything someone knew, visitors could bring the virus to Myrtle Beach, not the other way around. She complained that news reports wrongly tarmed the city with all the cases surrounding Horry County. And she curbed the warnings from Governor Justice and others.
"I would never go on TV and blame someone else for our problems," she said.
South Carolina remained relatively unscathed in the early months of the pandemic, but reports of new cases increased rapidly in June, as was the case in many parts of the South and West. In Horry County, the numbers from the Department of Health and Environmental Control in South Carolina have almost quadrupled.
The average age of people who tested positive in the state is from 51.4 years in March to May at 40.6 years. This reflects the growing proportion of young people who become infected with the virus after the reopening of the states.
People who visited Myrtle Beach in the spring generally lived nearby, but summer visitors come a lot farther away, says Zhenlong Li, a professor at the University of South Carolina who used Twitter's publicly available geolocation data to analyze travel patterns. Dr. Li speculated that people drawn to the reopened vacation destination from distant states may have misjudged the risks of a visit.
Around 400 teenagers from Loudoun County, Virginia, hiked to Grand Strand in June, as this stretch of the South Carolina coast is known, to experience the region's reputation for youthful debauchery. Some lived in the city's northern neighbor, North Myrtle Beach. More than 40 of them packed into a house to hold parties for the group. For some, it would be a long-awaited graduation party after a graduation year shortened by the pandemic.
Over 100 of the teenagers in Loudoun County have since tested positive, and public health officials believe the number will continue to grow.
In Belmont County, Ohio, there were relatively few cases of corona viruses until 22 teenagers and a supervisor infected came home from Myrtle Beach. Robert Sproul, the county deputy health commissioner, said his office found many photos from the trip on social media showing that the teenagers ignored the precautions.
"They go to the clubs – the older ones go to the bars," said Sproul. "They don't wear masks. They're not social distancing."
Mr. Sproul said his office had recently received news that another local child appeared to have discovered the virus at a baseball tournament in Myrtle Beach. This meant that his staff had to keep track of the child's contacts to see who else could be infected.
People on the boardwalk of Myrtle Beach and on the beach this week said they hadn't given much thought to the pandemic.
20-year-old Tate Trogdon, who was visiting with a high school friend from North Carolina, had spent most of his trip swimming on the beach. None of them know anyone who has been infected with the virus, he said, so the threat is virtually non-existent.
Derick Coleman, a 34-year-old graphic designer, sipped a sprite and said he really couldn't be bothered by the virus on vacation.
"I just got over it," he said. "It is exhausting."
When 18-year-old Nicole Feijoo walked the promenade with five friends in the late afternoon, no one was wearing a mask.
"I never really cared about illness," said Ms. Feijoo, a criminal justice student at Mitchell Community College in Statesville, NC. Some of her friends occasionally wore masks to protect themselves, she said, but "I'd rather be able to." still breathing – if I catch something, I catch something. "