Is Hilton Head on the week of July 4th ‘paradise’ or a ‘zoo?’ Depends on whom you ask

·11 min read

On Friday, young people with tan lines packed bars and overflowed onto patios in “The Bermuda Triangle” on Hilton Head Island.

On Saturday, sporty young couples and families pushing strollers shopped and dined their way through Harbour Town.

On Tuesday, honeymooners and city dwellers with face masks in their swim trunk pockets spread out across the beach at Coligny.

This past week, thousands of tourists crossed the bridge to Hilton Head on what is traditionally one of the island’s busiest weeks of the year.

Some wiped down hotel rooms with bleach and avoided crowds. But for most, it was a normal vacation, and for some, a chance to escape coronavirus restrictions still gripping communities back home.

Meanwhile, Beaufort County’s cases crested 1,000. Cars jammed the high school parking lot as drivers waited to be tested for the coronavirus. The CEO of a local hospital pleaded for leaders to require everyone to wear face masks.

Health officials from states including Pennsylvania named Hilton Head as a vacation destination dangerous enough to require quarantine upon returning home.

As local residents raise the alarm about rising case numbers and criticize efforts to bring Hilton Head’s biggest economic driver back to the Lowcountry, tourists have become a sometimes oblivious target.

For the most part, their experiences are insulated from the fervor of residents who flood public officials with concerns, push for mask requirements and line up by the hundreds to get tested. Many visitors dine, hit the beach and bike within a small radius of where they’ve rented a condo or hotel room.

Across seven days, Island Packet reporters interviewed these visitors, trying to understand what a July 4 holiday on “America’s #1 Island” looked like for them. The busiest week of the season comes just two weeks after one PGA Tour pro golfer called Hilton Head a “zoo” of people not taking the virus seriously.

“It’s not a zoo,” countered one tourist this week. “This has been a paradise.”

So is Hilton Head a refuge from isolation and fears of infection? Or is the virus still top of mind? It truly depends on whom you ask and where they come from.

Here’s a look into the busiest week of the island’s pandemic summer.

Few beach goers wore face coverings when making their way on and off Hilton Head Island’s beach on Saturday, June 27, 2020 on the narrow pathway near Coligny Beach Park.
Few beach goers wore face coverings when making their way on and off Hilton Head Island’s beach on Saturday, June 27, 2020 on the narrow pathway near Coligny Beach Park.

Saturday in Harbour Town

Justin Palmer was rubbing his daughter’s tiny hands so zealously with a sanitizing wipe that it looked like he would scrub off her nail polish.

He was standing with three generations of his family in Hilton Head Island’s Harbour Town on Saturday afternoon. They were seeking shade in the shadow of the island’s iconic lighthouse.

Kinsley, a pre-schooler who was wearing a pink Disney princess cloth mask, was getting ready to eat something. But first, Palmer wiped her hands vigorously to expel germs from the endless things she’d likely touched since the last sanitizing.

The moment captured what it’s like to vacation on Hilton Head in 2020 during the pandemic. Palmer, his wife, Ashley, and their three children, as well as his parents were wearing masks as the day crept toward a high of 90 degrees.

“It’s been good,” Ashley said on the last day of the family’s weeklong trip from the Raleigh area. “Just a little stressful because no one’s wearing masks, and so we’ve been really limited as to how often we’re going out.”

The Palmer Family from Raleigh, North Carolina sits in rocking chairs for a family photo. The three generations of family members wore masks inside and out on Hilton Head Island during their weeklong vacation during the coronavirus.
The Palmer Family from Raleigh, North Carolina sits in rocking chairs for a family photo. The three generations of family members wore masks inside and out on Hilton Head Island during their weeklong vacation during the coronavirus.

The Palmers were among hundreds of people, mostly unmasked, taking advantage of open shops and sunny weather. People dined outside at The Quarterdeck and Harbourside restaurants, and sat in the iconic red rocking chairs to take in the scene.

Nora Palmer, grandmother to Kinsley, said her laid-back morning included being subjected to judgmental looks.

“They look at us like we’re crazy,” she said of others’ reactions to their face masks.

She said no one had actually confronted the family about their masks, but she felt alienated in popular tourist areas.

Before the mandatory mask requirement, two guests wearing face coverings disembark from The Vagabond Cruise on Saturday, June 27, 2020 at Harbour Town in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island after a sight seeing cruise.
Before the mandatory mask requirement, two guests wearing face coverings disembark from The Vagabond Cruise on Saturday, June 27, 2020 at Harbour Town in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island after a sight seeing cruise.

Nearby, Mike Wall and Jillian Steinbroner were taking in views of Calibogue Sound from the end of the Harbour Town pier as waves crashed below them. The young couple, unmasked, said they’d arrived for a weekend trip from Raleigh.

“I think it’s good, it’s very relaxing, it’s way more uptight in North Carolina,” Wall said of Hilton Head. “Out here it feels more like back to normal. I think people are getting over everything and are trying to return to normal as much as possible.”

Wall and Steinbroner stayed at The Beach House hotel in the Coligny area, where they ventured to nearby restaurants and said they felt comfortable dining outside.

They planned to go to South Beach Marina after their jaunt in Harbour Town and asked for kayaking recommendations. They said they weren’t wearing masks on their trip because they have to wear them “all the time” in North Carolina.

“Having so many restrictions for so long, it is like ‘all right, I’m going to chance it’ because how long can we keep doing this?” Wall said.

“Mostly everything we’re doing is outside,” Steinbroner added.

An employee with The Vagabond Cruise sanitizes touch points on Saturday, June 27, 2020 at Harbour Town in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island after a sight seeing group on the vessel returned to the pier.
An employee with The Vagabond Cruise sanitizes touch points on Saturday, June 27, 2020 at Harbour Town in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island after a sight seeing group on the vessel returned to the pier.

Other visitors left the island disillusioned by what they saw on vacation.

“We were there from Austin, Texas, (last) week and I was shocked at the lack of mask and COVID-19 prevention,” Catherine Cash wrote to The Island Packet. “I have been coming to Sea Pines since (I was) a small child in the 80s. It was almost as busy as usual, which I did not expect.”

Two days after the Island Packet spoke with visitors in Harbour Town, the Town of Hilton Head Island passed a mask requirement that requires face coverings for all employees and guests in island commercial establishments. Breaking the rule, a misdemeanor, is punishable by a fine of up to $500 or up to 30 days in jail.

The ordinance wouldn’t have required masks for the people walking around Harbour Town, but would have for shoppers and diners inside nearby businesses.

The Palmer family, Wall and Steinbromer were all back home in North Carolina by the time the Town Council voted.

Tuesday on Coligny Beach

On Tuesday morning, beachgoers endured 90-degree heat, sweating as they tugged carts and coolers through Coligny plaza. Few wore masks in the open air.

The Chiappetta family were on day three of their weeklong getaway from Covington, Georgia, east of Atlanta. They had planned to go to Disney World, but settled for Hilton Head instead when the resort closed.

Hilton Head was “more normal than I thought it could be,” said 15-year-old Caroline Chiappetta. The family packed masks to wear inside or around crowds.

Still, her sister, 19-year-old Hayley Chiappetta, who is set to study nursing, said the family should get tested at the end of their vacation because they’ve been around so many strangers.

Their father, Brian Chiappetta, said the pandemic doesn’t bother him. “I’m not worried about it because we’ve probably already had it. It’s been blown way out of proportion.”

“It’s not a zoo,” he said. “This has been a paradise.”

David Fleming, manager at Sharky’s Bike Rental on Pope Avenue adjusts a seat for Cincinnati resident Perry Herbert, left and his wife Karen Herbert on Saturday, June 27, 2020 on Hilton Head Island. Fleming said about 50 percent of the customers wore a face covering, which he preferred. While the Ohioans weren’t actively wearing a mask outdoors, the visitors were carrying masks to wear when entering businesses.
David Fleming, manager at Sharky’s Bike Rental on Pope Avenue adjusts a seat for Cincinnati resident Perry Herbert, left and his wife Karen Herbert on Saturday, June 27, 2020 on Hilton Head Island. Fleming said about 50 percent of the customers wore a face covering, which he preferred. While the Ohioans weren’t actively wearing a mask outdoors, the visitors were carrying masks to wear when entering businesses.

Across the plaza, rocking on wooden swings, an older couple from North Carolina stood out wearing blue and white surgical masks. The Palmetto state is far behind its northern cousin, they said.

Asked about their masks, the man said, “Nobody seems to care. Everybody laughs at you.”

Added his partner: “I took my precautions, but I’m here to have a good time and enjoy myself.”

A woman walked by, her face wrapped in a beach towel, sunglasses resting on top.

On the beach, people fanned out, cooled by the steady breeze and sprawled under umbrellas and tents.

A beachgoer asks a Shore Beach Service lifeguard about a rental on Saturday, June 27, 2020 on the beach of Hilton Head Island. Lifeguards must wear a face covering while on the beach and they maintain social distancing by marking off their lifeguard stands with a boundary rope.
A beachgoer asks a Shore Beach Service lifeguard about a rental on Saturday, June 27, 2020 on the beach of Hilton Head Island. Lifeguards must wear a face covering while on the beach and they maintain social distancing by marking off their lifeguard stands with a boundary rope.

The tide was low, exposing an expanse of sand.

“Being outside, we feel comfortable,” said Rob Morin, clad in an American flag towel and visiting the island from the Atlanta area with his new wife, Alexa.

It was the couple’s honeymoon. “We wanted to go somewhere else, we wanted to go abroad,” he said. “The Caribbean,” chimed in Alexa. “This was all that we could do.”

Walking along the surf in a swimsuit, one vacationer remarked that, in some ways, the island feels like a different world from where she came from, up north.

Justine Lancaster, a flight attendant from New Jersey, said she felt strange eating out at a restaurant. “In New Jersey, everyone’s in a mask, no one’s really going out,” she said. “We just opened restaurants like two days ago.”

She was on a spur-of-the-moment vacation with her friend Michelle Schrote. They drove from North Carolina. Schrote said the contrast is less stark between the two southern states.

“I don’t see much difference,” she said.

“It’s just nice to be outside,” added Lancaster.

The beach, they said, feels safe.

Few beach goers wore face coverings when making their way on and off Hilton Head Island’s beach on Saturday, June 27, 2020 on the narrow pathway near Coligny Beach Park.
Few beach goers wore face coverings when making their way on and off Hilton Head Island’s beach on Saturday, June 27, 2020 on the narrow pathway near Coligny Beach Park.

The Ford family was standing knee deep in the surf a few yards away. “People are spread out and to themselves, not all up on each other,” says Sydney Ford, who’s in her early 20s.

The family was relaxed until earlier that morning, said Ernesto Ford. Then they saw the flier at their hotel advising visitors that, starting at midnight, masks would be mandatory inside island businesses.

“I think that’s a good idea,” Ernesto Ford said.

The requirement came after nearly three weeks of rising coronavirus case counts. Later Tuesday, Beaufort County set a record in case numbers. Seventy more people had the virus.

A sign at the entrance to Hilton Head Island’s Coligny Hardware on Wednesday, July 1, 2020 informs customers they must wear a mask when entering the store.
A sign at the entrance to Hilton Head Island’s Coligny Hardware on Wednesday, July 1, 2020 informs customers they must wear a mask when entering the store.

Wednesday in Shelter Cove Marina

On Wednesday, as scorching 95-degree heat baked the island, two families at Shelter Cove Marina stood waiting for a boat rental and a fishing trip.

Their experience with the COVID-19 pandemic back home informed the precautions they were taking on Hilton Head.

“We’ve just been in masks for the last three months,” Danielle Della Pella said as she stood next to her three children, all in masks at the marina. “I think yes, it gives us a sense of comfort.”

Della Pella and her family arrived the Saturday earlier from Westminster, New York. Since then, they’ve dodged busy restaurants and said they had seen very few people wearing masks.

“We probably hoped that there would be more mask wearing down here because we’re from like, ground zero,” she said.

The family was ready to get on a boat, where they said they’d relish in taking off their masks in the open air. Most of their itinerary for the week involved outdoor activities: hitting the beach, renting stand-up paddleboards and sailing.

Olivia Panozzo, center, director of operations at ZipLine Hilton Head, goes over details on the harness system with employees on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 on Hilton Head Island. Before the Town off Hilton Head Island’s ordinance for mandatory face coverings, employees at the outdoor adventure company were wearing face coverings, kept customers six feet apart and wear plastic face shields when checking customers gear to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Olivia Panozzo, center, director of operations at ZipLine Hilton Head, goes over details on the harness system with employees on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 on Hilton Head Island. Before the Town off Hilton Head Island’s ordinance for mandatory face coverings, employees at the outdoor adventure company were wearing face coverings, kept customers six feet apart and wear plastic face shields when checking customers gear to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Danielle’s daughter Kailyn Reilly, 16, was wearing a purple Hilton Head Island crew neck sweatshirt and a surgical mask. She said people on Hilton Head weren’t taking the virus as seriously as in other parts of the country.

“I think it’s selfish that people aren’t wearing masks. I think some people definitely don’t think the virus is as bad as it is,” she said.

Her brother, a soon-to-be freshman student at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, said the virus seems a bigger threat back home.

“Coming from New York, it seems a lot more real and up close. I know people who have gotten it,” 17-year-old Cavan Reilly said.

Visitors from as far away as New York and Ohio wait for rental boats at Shelter Cove Marina on Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Tourists said the extent of the pandemic in their home states has shaped how they are experiencing their July 4th vacation.
Visitors from as far away as New York and Ohio wait for rental boats at Shelter Cove Marina on Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Tourists said the extent of the pandemic in their home states has shaped how they are experiencing their July 4th vacation.

The family was planning to come to Hilton Head for spring break but canceled. Della Pella said she re-booked about a month and a half prior to making the trip to the island. When she rebooked, she said, numbers of coronavirus cases were dwindling.

Her observation also gave many island residents hope that the coronavirus was under control. In the weeks around Memorial Day, Beaufort County was reporting between one and nine new cases per day. Starting June 8, the county began seeing double-digit case numbers, leading to a record-setting, seven-day average of almost 50 new cases a day this week.

On the porch of a nearby gift shop, another family waited in the shade.

“We brought face masks, and we wear them where we have to,” said Leslie Stowe, who lives in the Cincinnati, Ohio, area. “We’re not real happy about that.”

“Our family is very healthy. We’re all athletes, so we’re not really taking it real seriously,” said teenager Tanner Ouhl. “We’re not worried about anything.”

“There’s a lot of different hotspots in the world and we, living in Ohio, don’t live in one of those hotspots,” said Stowe.

The family has been coming to Hilton Head for decades.

Besides the masks, it was a normal vacation.

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