Emails show behind the scenes of how Myrtle Beach prepared for COVID-19

Published: Mar. 25, 2020 at 6:14 PM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - At the end of February, South Carolina had no reported cases of coronavirus. In the following weeks, cases jumped from six to more than 400, with almost every county reporting positive cases.

The rapid increase in the threat caused government officials across the state to rapidly plan and adjust to the unprecedented emergency.

WMBF Investigates obtained dozens of emails between city officials that reveal both how Myrtle Beach planned for COVID-19 and how quickly the situation progressed.

WMBF Investigates requested any communication related to coronavirus beginning Jan. 1.

Week 1

The first time officials began discussing COVID-19 through email was Feb. 26, according to city emails.

"I think it is time for us to start to get ahead of this for our residents,” wrote city manager John Pedersen in an email to officials on Feb. 26.

The same day the city also bought 2,500 surgical masks, “to keep in inventory just in case. We would rather have them and not need them versus the alternative. They will be used by EMS if we do not use them,” wrote the deputy city manger in an update.

Mayor Brenda Bethune said initial discussions started earlier than the emails reveal.

“We started talking before that and never did we imagine that it would be to this level, so of course the communication has increased,” Bethune said.

But a month ago, leaders were still planning for a just-in-case scenario.

Week 2

The city releases its first statement on COVID-19 on March 2 to inform the public a plan has been reviewed but, “the CDC still believes the risk to the American Public remains low at this time.”

A rough draft of a continuity of operations plan is sent out to officials to provide a framework on how the city can continue essential functions if an emergency like a pandemic influenza strikes.

This is the week Grand Strand leaders start discussing setting up a blue-med tent and limiting entrances to its buildings.

“I think at this point we need to start considering a more formal plan to deal with this situation,” Myrtle Beach Emergency Management Director Bruce Arnel wrote to public safety leaders.

A police captain reports the city is screening any potentially infected patients immediately and not transporting them. Additional sanitizing and cleaning precautions were also being pushed out to officers.

The week ends with the first COVID-19 cases being confirmed in South Carolina. The Myrtle Beach Marathon continues as scheduled, with some additional health precautions implemented.

Week 3

Managers for the Myrtle Beach Convention Center and Sports Complex begin discussions about a message to send to the public after receiving numerous inquiries.

“We have cleaning crews in operation 24 hours a day here, but we really don’t have the additional resources to do more that what we already do,” the general manager of the convention center writes to officials.

The center places hand sanitizers around the building and keeps events and activities scheduled.

“Someone needs to become the face of this crisis for all of us and I would think that should be you...please do your job and inform people about what Myrtle Beach is doing to get ready before it is on us," a concerned resident wrote to Bethune on March 10.

The same day Bethune calls for a group meeting.

“I think it’s safe to say that we will at some point have a confirmed case in Myrtle Beach and when that happens the public will expect information and answer,” she wrote in an email to officials. "I may be stepping outside of my lane, but shouldn’t we have a group meeting to discuss our preparations, etc., similar to what we do for a hurricane?...people are becoming increasingly more fearful and I think we need to do all we can to ease their concerns and strive to deter people from panicking.”

Bethune informs city council about what occurred during the COVID-19 management meeting the following day, noting the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce is working with businesses and the emergency management team is receiving updates from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and hospitals. She wrote the next step was to develop an action plan “for when we do have a confirmed case.”

In the same email Bethune wrote, “There were shared concerns about the Governor reacting by declaring a State of Emergency which would be detrimental to our area. Karen and I have both reached out to the Governor and shared our position with him. He is in agreement and has no plans to be reactionary over this virus.”

This comes just days before Gov. Henry McMaster declares a State of Emergency.

Looking back on her position two weeks earlier, Bethune said on Wednesday, “the situation has changed and no that is not the message we are sending to the Governor now.”

She said now the city and the chamber are encouraging McMaster that any shelter-in-place orders be consistent throughout the state and not left up to municipalities.

“It makes no sense for Myrtle Beach to have one order, Charleston to have another one, North Myrtle Beach to be different. We all need to be on the same page, operating from the same set of rules so it is consistent and cohesive across the state,” Bethune said.

By the end of the week, the promotions group cancels its St. Patrick’s Day festivities and the Food Truck festival operators postpone the April event.

Week 4

The weekend of March 14 dramatically changed the situation throughout the state and county.

Horry County’s first coronavirus cases are confirmed on Sunday, March 15. The announcement leads to Myrtle Beach declaring its own State of Emergency.

“For me personally, it got very real when Horry County got our first confirmed case and to see those cases increase and I am very emphatic to the fact that that is scary, it’s stressful, people are anxious but we do need to plan. We need to remain calm is a key component of all of this and one that I want people to understand that panicking in a situation like this makes it so much worse,” Bethune said. “We will get through this, we will be stronger we will be better and we’re going to do that together.”

Gov. McMaster closes schools across the state.

Myrtle Beach cancels meetings and special events while closing its buildings to the public.

Cresswind, a Market Commons neighborhood, also confirms one of its residents tested positive for COVID-19.

On Monday, Bethune writes to leaders, “My personal feeling is that we need to look at short-term pain by making tough choices now in order to have long-term gain. The sooner we limit public interaction is the sooner this will be over and we can be back in business."

The next day McMaster shut down dine-in services for bars and restaurants.

The same day, Myrtle Beach leaders exchange updates through email. Spending restrictions were put in place for departments and Bethune works with the chamber of commerce on ways to help the business community when it’s all over.

“The city is looking at our business license fees. What can we do to help for some relief from that standpoint? With the Chamber we’re talking about what can we do statewide for the people throughout South Carolina to travel in South Carolina. Spend our dollars here. Let’s support our own state so we’re looking at festivals, events, promotions, as well as some other things that we can hopefully get the state on board with us to support those efforts,” Bethune explained.

The city also creates a COVID-19 web page.

Week 5

Five weeks after emails over coronavirus began, Bethune said there is still so much uncertainty that makes planning a challenge.

“It evolves every single day. This pandemic is a situation where literally it changes on a daily basis,” Bethune said. “The numbers change, the reactions change and, you know, the public’s perception changes, so unlike a hurricane there are so many different things we have to plan for and prepare for and deal with, and that’s what makes this a unique situation.”

She said there is no rule book on how to handle a situation like this. Since this is a pandemic impacting the whole world, Bethune said she has been contacting and monitoring how other cities respond.

“I’ve been following the mayor of Seattle, Washington pretty closely because they’ve dealt with this so much sooner than we had to. We can look at some of the things they’ve put into place and say, ‘Will that work here?’ Business recovery plan is going to be huge for this area," she said.

She said communication internally and with other local leaders is now daily. She said communication is the biggest lesson she’s learned so far.

And while there is a lot she nor anyone else knows, Bethune said now is also the time to start planning for when this is all over.

“This is going to be an economic devastation to this area. We have our hospitality industry, service industry people who are out of jobs and we don’t know for how long and we know they are going to need help, so it is the time to put together a plan, whether it is putting together a fundraiser, employing our federal government to help, our state government,” she said.

Bethune assures the community that the city is working, planning and listening to the community.

“Myrtle Beach is a community that cares. We have always pulled together during time of crisis and this is not going to be any different. So I know we are going to come out of this very well. We just need everyone to go ahead and plan, follow the safety guidelines, and stay calm and stay safe,” Bethune said.

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