Grand Strand businesses are ready to put COVID-19 in the rear view this Memorial Day.
“It’s always the weekend that kicks off everything,” said Tanner Cauthen, Dirty Don’s Oyster Bar & Grill general manager. “Hopefully the floodgates will open.”
This year, tourism leaders and hospitality businesses hope that this weekend will be a bellwether for the rest of summer for a region and industry that was hit hard by the pandemic.
Most of all, they want people to come to town. Restaurants, bars, hotels and other hospitality businesses want people to take their stimulus checks, all that money that wasn’t spent on vacations for the last year and spend in here in the Grand Strand.
“It looks like it’s going to be a strong weekend for the hospitality and tourism industry, which is great for our businesses and trying to recoup so much loss in the last year,” Myrtle Beach Hospitality Association CEO Stephen Greene said.
The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce reports that the lodging (hotels, motels, vacation rentals) occupancy rate is expected to be well above 80% for Memorial Day weekend. If it reaches that high, it could easily be one of the highest occupancy rates the region has seen in 2021, maybe even since before the pandemic.
The Myrtle Beach airport expects to see anywhere from 7,000 to 7,500 people going through security each day this weekend, according to the federal Transportation Security Administration. That’s a 20% spike from the current rate of about 5,500 to 6,000 people per day.
“Our area businesses have had a good amount of weekend business this past spring and as this holiday weekend kicks off the summer travel season, they can expect that demand will continue to be strong – not only on the weekends – but throughout the week as our lodging forecast data shows,” Myrtle Beach Area Chamber CEO Karen Riordan said in a statement. “People are getting vaccinated and are traveling again. After last year, I think we’re all looking forward to a relaxing summer experience here at the beach.”
Myrtle Beach is No. 3 in the top destinations for road trips this Memorial Day, according to AAA Carolinas. Across South Carolina, AAA expects nearly 600,000 residents to travel for the holiday weekend. The average price of gas has also shot up in recent weeks, and currently sits at a statewide average of $2.87 per gallon.
“Many Carolinians are so eager to travel, we don’t expect higher gas prices to interfere with their plans,” AAA Carolinas spokeswoman Tiffany Wright said in a statement. “We typically find when pump prices increase, travelers look for more free activities or eat out less while on vacation, but still take their planned trips.”
All those Memorial Day crowds will most likely bring long lines, especially as the region faces a historic worker shortage. Restaurants might have long lines even as tables sit empty. Some businesses could have shorter hours if they can’t find enough people to work.
“Pack your patience,” Greene said. “Pack your courtesy and understand our job as the hospitality and tourism industry is to meet your needs and also, obviously, to ensure the safety and the prosperity of our locals. We’re facing a labor crisis, and business is going to be very strong. Our industry is doing the best we can with limited resources to meet guests’ and locals’ expectations.”
Roca Roja Cantina, which opened earlier this spring, struggled to find workers and still isn’t open seven days a week. It only recently fully opened its two bars on the second floor. Owner Terry Walden said the restaurant still needs to hire more bartenders, servers and kitchen staff.
“It’s our first season, so we don’t know quite what to expect, and we feel like we are prepared to handle some volume, but you just never know,” Walden said.
Cauthen said both Dirty Don’s locations in Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach have all the staff that they need. This weekend could still present some unexpected stress tests. He’s faced difficulties retaining workers who were unemployed for much of the last year. As a result, he hopes he’ll have all the staff he needs this weekend but can’t be sure until it happens.
“I think customers, as long as you’re honest and you tell them that you might be a little understaffed and you try and you’re working at your best, I think that people are pretty much understanding across the board,” Cauthen said.
Not having enough workers to meet demand isn’t what worries Cauthen, though.
“We could have the problem of not having people here, and that would be a much bigger deal to me than having been shorthanded and working with it,” he said. “I’d much rather have the problem of getting my butt kicked all day long.
Some businesses would like to forget the coronavirus pandemic ever happened, but one fact remains ever-present.
COVID-19 is still around. Only 42% of the in South Carolina population 12 and up has been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Among people aged 20-24 in Horry County, just a tiny sliver of the population, 871 people, has been vaccinated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends wearing a mask in crowded spaces indoors, like bars, and when around unvaccinated people.
Since the start of the pandemic, Horry County has seen nearly 30,000 COVID-19 diagnoses.
“While we’re welcoming these visitors and encouraging them to have a fun-yet-safe holiday experience, we’re also especially reminding them to continue to take health and safety precautions,” Riordan said in a statement.
Other travel tips
Even if you’ve visited before, Myrtle Beach might not look the same this year. Here are tips from tourism experts, the Transportation Security Administration and AAA Carolinas.
Expect long lines at airport security. The TSA recommends arriving at the airport two hours ahead of your flight.
Someone brought a full handle of Tito’s Handmade Vodka to security this week. No, that cannot fly in your carry on.
Certain parts of town will have extra traffic restrictions, like no golf carts on Ocean Boulevard Friday through Monday, or shut down lanes to provide emergency vehicles access.
Plan your ride: Residents and tourists have reported for months few Lyft and Uber rides available and long waits.
Biking in? Some jurisdictions require motorcyclists to wear a helmet.
King tides are expected this weekend and could bring flooding to low-lying parts of the region, like Cherry Grove.
Fuel up responsibly. Don’t let yourself run low on gas, but also try to avoid wasting it as the state recovers from the Colonial Pipeline shutdown. Consider combining trips or waiting until you are at a quarter tank before refueling.
Events this Memorial Day weekend in Myrtle Beach
Friday, May 28: Groovin’ on the Green — Downtown Conway, 200 Laurel St., Conway
Saturday, May 29: Military Appreciation Days Parade, Picnic and Exhibits — Farrow Parkway, The Market Common
May 30 — Brookgreen Gardens Memorial Day 5K — 1931 Brookgreen Drive, Murrells Inlet
May 31 — Veterans’ March — Ocean Boulevard, 16th to 9th Avenues North
All Weekend — The SkyWheel on the Boardwalk has reopened.