A tale of two states: NC musicians flock to SC for gigs while NC bars, restaurants continue to struggle

A few members of Strange Brew play mostly at South Carolina bars since they can still serve drinks until 11 p.m.

OCEAN ISLE BEACH, N.C. (WECT) - When it comes to COVID-19 restrictions on bars and restaurants, it’s like night and day between North Carolina and its neighbor to the south.

Under Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order, bars and restaurants in North Carolina must stop serving alcohol at 9 p.m. while in South Carolina, they can serve drinks until 11 p.m. Members of the local band “Strange Brew” say it was an easy decision to start booking gigs in the Palmetto State.

“We played 75 to 100 gigs a year from 2015 to 2019,” said Scott Blackmon, the band’s drummer. “So things have really been great.”

Blackmon lives in Ocean Isle Beach, but says Carolina Beach is his family. However, when the pandemic hit, restaurants and bars on the island weren’t booking musicians much anymore.

“I discovered South Carolina,” said Blackmon. “It’s been a blessing to discover this area—the entertainment, the restaurant industry, the people. It’s just night and day from North Carolina right now. I feel depressed and gloom and doom in North Carolina, and I step across the line, and people are happy. And you know, we’re able to play to 11 at night. We went from zero gigs two months ago and now we’re almost booked up.”

The band’s front man, Mark Loren, is retired but says music is his passion. He says he was heartbroken when the pandemic struck the restaurant and music industry in North Carolina.

“We have to be off the stage 8 p.m. in Wilmington and Carolina Beach,” said Loren. “The people aren’t going to come out. They just...they won’t come out that early.”

Loren lives in Hampstead and commutes to South Carolina several nights a week with his band, but he says it’s worth it to keep doing what he loves to do.

Though Strange Brew plays mostly in South Carolina, the group still plays at some places in North Carolina, like a fairly new Italian restaurant, Talk of the Town, in Ocean Isle Beach. They opened in January 2020 and the owners say they did very well the first few months, and then COVID hit.

”Things that really scared really quick,” said James McCarthy, one of the owners. ”It was it’s been really slow. We do a lot of takeout trying to make up from how slow it’s been. For the most part, we’re just staying afloat with our business, we’re making our payroll. Like we said earlier, thank God for the beginning of the year, we will put a couple of nickels in a bank. But at this point, it’s getting scary.”

“it kills us that you who go less than 10 miles away, and they’re open all the time,” said the other owner, Kevin Faye. “And that’s why nobody’s coming to North Carolina, they’re all going to South Carolina, because we’re right on the border.”

Ron Johnson owns Stars Tavern in Little River, South Carolina -- exactly 14 minutes from Talk of the Town.

“I think that we’ve been more blessed here in South Carolina than North Carolina,” said Johnson. “I feel like music is such a cultural and social and spiritual thing that people still want to get out and do and experience it. And we’ve had a lot of people from from Wilmington that can’t get gigs, you know, coming down here wanting to play because it’s been so locked down there.”

Johnson said that even though they’re open with less restrictions than NC, it has still been a struggle for his business and ones alike.

“It has been a nightmare,” said Johnson.

Faye and McCarthy, as well as Blackmon and Loren, just hope something changes -- and fast -- so they and other local businesses in North Carolina can stay open.

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