As warmer weather returns to the U.S., so have hospitality jobs, which saw 355,000 new employees in February.

While South Carolina-specific data will not be out until later this month, tourism industry experts said the U.S. Department of Labor report, released Friday, bodes well for the Palmetto State.

The hospitality and leisure job gains follow earlier significant declines in job growth in December at the height of COVID-19, when more people stayed at home to avoid the virus, according to the federal labor department and the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce. In South Carolina, the last month of 2020 saw only 1,300 new jobs in hospitality and leisure compared to 6,900 in October and 3,800 in November.

Restaurants and bars drove much of that December decline across the U.S., losing 372,000 jobs, much of which has now been regained thanks to February’s growth.

Economists say the improvements show that while consumers might not be ready to get on a plane, many are ready to go to local restaurants or personal care services like salons.

The overall U.S. unemployment rate fell half a percentage point to 6.2% in February. However, the unemployment rate for Black workers rose to 9.9%.

There are still 3.5 million fewer leisure and hospitality jobs across the country than there were this time last year, before the brunt of the pandemic. In December, South Carolina still had 53,200 fewer jobs than one year earlier, when taking into account typical seasonal losses associated with winter declines in tourism. The vast majority of those lost jobs, 43,500, were in leisure and hospitality.

Every metropolitan area in the state still had not recovered all of the jobs lost due to the pandemic by December, which is the most recent data available. The Hilton Head area was the closest to full recovery — down only 400 jobs that month.

Myrtle Beach and Charleston had two of the largest employment gaps from December 2019 to December 2020, down by 20,000 and 14,000 jobs, respectively.

Economists and tourism experts have long expected a recovery for the South Carolina coast as the vaccine roll out continues and people feel more comfortable going out. Myrtle Beach Hospitality Association CEO Stephen Greene is among many industry leaders who even expect the region to see a shortage of workers by summertime.

Myrtle Beach has relied on foreign workers, particularly international students, to fill tourism jobs in the spring, summer and fall. However, former President Donald Trump halted the visa programs that allow these people to come to the U.S., citing the risks posed by coronavirus pandemic. The soonest that order is expected to be lifted is the end of this month, though President Joe Biden could extend it further.

“There’s so many different factors out there right now that are challenging and worrisome because we don’t know exactly what the percentage return is going to be for our summer season,” Greene said. “If it’s a strong one, where are we going to get these workers from? So there’s definitely some concerns there.”

To fill the gap, Karen Riordan, CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said her organization has a particularly strong focus this year on recruiting high school students to work in the tourism industry.

“All of our indicators are that if the demand follows through as we expect it to, there are going to definitely be some needs in terms of workforce of this summer,” Riordan said. “That’s a big problem to have, but we’d rather have that problem than the opposite, which is not many people here and layoffs.”

The Chamber is encouraging employers to post any jobs they know they will need sooner than later to “lock down as many workers as possible” and avoid a last-minute scramble for employees.

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Chase Karacostas writes about tourism in Myrtle Beach and across South Carolina for McClatchy. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2020 with degrees in Journalism and Political Communication. He began working for McClatchy in 2020 after growing up in Texas, where he has bylines in three of the state’s largest print media outlets as well as the Texas Tribune covering state politics, the environment, housing and the LGBTQ+ community.