The Myrtle Beach Police Department quietly stopped lending out free specialty wheelchairs for the beach over a year ago, after suspending the service because of COVID, making it the only coastal Horry County municipality to not offer the service.
While city leaders said the program was an additional perk similar to police directing traffic, disability advocates say they believe the move could keep people off the beach because of the expense of renting or purchasing the beach wheelchairs.
Although Myrtle Beach officials, including city manager Jonathan “Fox” Simons, Jr. and city spokesperson Mark Kruea, said discontinuing the rental program would save money, neither could immediately provide figures on exactly how much. Also unknown is how often the wheelchairs were used.
Kruea wrote in an email that the program “did not have a designated cost … It was a service, just like directing traffic at school zones.”
Information about the now-discontinued service was scrubbed from the police department website following the Sun News’ inquiry into the program.
Standard wheelchairs sink in the soft sand, so beach wheelchairs, with their large tires, allow wheelchair users to traverse the beach. Without the free program, visitors can choose between a multi-day rental from private companies — from $30-50 a day — or buying a beach wheelchair, at an average cost of $2,500, according to the owner of Wheelchairs and Scooters of Myrtle Beach.
Before spring 2020, the Myrtle Beach Police Department dropped off and picked up beach wheelchairs free of charge for use on municipal beaches on a first-come first-served basis. City officials said the program, which started in the ‘90s, had around six wheelchairs.
The city also tried to axe the program in 2016, but reversed its decision within a few days after receiving calls and emails from residents. At the time, Kruea said the city pledged to purchase 12 new beach wheelchairs.
The city manager’s decision
“I would say it was popular, people liked it,” Simons said of the service. “We found this was an area where we might be able to trim a little bit and not really have a negative impact, because there was a private sector solution.”
Kruea wrote that the program was cut because it was “very labor-intensive.” When asked how much money was saved when the program ended, Kruea responded in an email, “If we don’t have a cost for providing the service, it stands to reason that we don’t have a cost associated with ending the service.”
Simons said he made the decision in consultation with the police department, which he oversees, and the city attorney. Myrtle Beach Police Department spokesperson Chris Starling could not be reached for comment.
Kruea wrote in an email that the decision to end the program occurred “once the major COVID restrictions were lifted,” but neither city official could specify the month or year. Simons was hired in December 2020.
“We value every visitor that comes to Myrtle Beach. We are very ADA accessible. We have beach accesses to some degree that are ADA accessible. For those folks who want to get onto the beach and into the water, there are private sector businesses that you can rent wheelchairs from to enjoy the beach,” Simons said.
“It’s really going to hurt a lot of people.”
A self-proclaimed “beach bum,” Unita Knight of Carolina Forest wanted to watch the waves under a beach umbrella with her 90-year-old mother Joan Pulliam.
Deciding it would be easier than renting every time her loved ones with disabilities wanted to visit the beach, Knight purchased a beach wheelchair off Amazon for $994, one of the less expensive models.
“In a place like this, it’s hard for somebody who doesn’t have full use of their legs to get around in some of these places that are so attractive,” Knight said.
Brock Johnson, president of the nonprofit Coastal Adaptive Sports, said, “It’s really going to hurt a lot of people.”
“It’s hard to get on the beach,” said Johnson, who is a quadriplegic.
Johnson said that not everyone has beach-going friends like him to help them get to the beach.
Among other initiatives, the Coastal Adaptive Sports purchased a wheelchair for Cherry Grove Pier, the first in their goal to have a beach wheelchair at each pier on the east coast.
“We’re trying to make the beaches more accessible, not less accessible,” Johnson said. “They’re really hurting the people that are already hurting the most.”
Simons said the city was “probably not” planning on putting out a press release about the changes. Until the last few weeks, the Myrtle Beach Police Department website said the beach wheelchair program was temporarily suspended. This page has since been removed.
The City of Myrtle Beach’s website doesn’t mention a city-run service, but includes contact information for two private wheelchair rental businesses.
Neither of the two businesses offer single day rentals, which is what the free service did.
Bill Herlocker, owner of Wheelchairs and Scooters of Myrtle Beach in Broadway at the Beach, was contacted by the city to verify their information to refer people to his business.
Since the end of the city’s free service, “I can’t say we’ve had a change in our rental business,” Herlocker said.
He explained this is because the two occupied different markets.
While the city’s program exclusively lent out beach wheelchairs for one day, Herlocker said his business only does longer rentals, because it’s not financially feasible for them to rent for a single day. Wheelchairs and Scooters of Myrtle Beach rents beach wheelchairs for $100 for two days (the minimum rental period).
He said that he spends substantial time replacing parts worn down by the sand and renters unfamiliar with how to operate beach wheelchairs.
“I do understand some of (the city’s) perspective in it. It is a lot of work,” Herlocker said.
Kelly Hardwick, a technician at the Mobility Center, which is the other listed rental company, said he believed the business had heard of the end of the program, but not directly from the city.
Maintenance on beach wheelchairs is about the same as other rental wheelchairs, Hardwick said. The Mobility Center has a minimum two-day rental as well and starts at $60 for two days.
Is this legal?
While governments have to make their public spaces accessible, beach wheelchairs are not required. However, disability experts say providing this service free of charge allows people with disabilities and their loved ones, many of whom are low-income, fully enjoy the city’s natural amenities.
Christine Woodell has worked at the Southeast ADA Center for 30 years doing training on the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“There is no requirement for having a beach wheelchair,” Woodell said in a phone interview.
While municipalities are required to provide wheelchair access, like ramps, they aren’t required to supply a wheelchair because it is considered to be a personal item, according to Woodell.
Of the 136 beach accesses operated by the city of Myrtle Beach, 21 are handicap accessible, according to data from South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. Visitors typically have to travel over 100 feet from the beach access to the waterline.
Even though beach wheelchairs are not legally mandated, “it’s a wonderful feature,” Woodell said.
Woodell said the wheelchair rental fee can be a barrier for Myrtle Beach beach-goers with disabilities, many of whom are low-income. In 2019, a quarter of U.S. adults with disabilities lived below the poverty line, which was more than twice the rate of the general population, according to a census study.
“I’ve never heard that experience from anybody, so I can’t really speak to it,” Simons said when asked about the economic impact on individual people with disabilities.
Other cities with beach wheelchairs
Many coastal governments around Horry County and the south offer free beach wheelchairs for visitors to borrow.
Horry County lent out their 25 beach wheelchairs 633 times in 2022, down from 842 in 2019, according to spokesperson Mikayla Moskov via text. The county devotes approximately $25,000 to buying and maintaining the wheelchairs and staffing the program, which lends wheelchairs for use at beaches in the unincorporated areas of the county.
North Myrtle Beach’s 22 beach wheelchairs were donated by the North Myrtle Beach Pilot Club and are maintained by city staff, wrote spokesperson Donald Graham. In 2022, the beach wheelchairs were borrowed 712 times, an increase from 2019, which was 515. The city’s beach wheelchairs are free to pick up or $25 for delivery.
The Surfside Beach Police Department has five beach wheelchairs available for visitors, with plans to purchase two more in the future, according to administrative division supervisor Tanika Parson.
It’s “a very popular service,” Parson said.
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