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Despite COVID-19, big crowds expected in Galveston for summer's start

GALVESTON

Hotels and vacation rentals are booked and many thousands of people are headed this way.

Public safety officials expect normal holiday weekend crowds of between 250,000 and 500,000 visitors on the island for Memorial Day, despite continued social distancing recommendations to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Businesses are preparing for a hectic weekend, a welcome relief after two months of stifled operations, but whether the activity bodes well for the rest of the summer is uncertain.

On a Wednesday afternoon, beach crowds already looked like those of normal summer days, Galveston Island Beach Patrol Chief Peter Davis said.

“We’re pretty much open for business as usual,” Davis said.

Although there’s a chance of rain, there’s a good chance the island will see the high end of normal Memorial Day weekend crowds — 250,000 to 500,000 visitors, he said.

Beach Patrol has been checking the more than 600 signs it maintains on beaches, increasing security at the beach parks and preparing the 65 lifeguards it has ready to work after a May training academy, he said.

Guards will encourage people to practice social distancing, but staying spread out mostly will be up to beachgoers, Davis said.

“We don’t have the ability to make that our top priority,” Davis said.

Davis hopes to recruit as many as 50 more guards in June to increase staffing and cover normal attrition, he said.

City police vehicles will be posted in parking spaces on the north side of Seawall Boulevard between 27th and 28th streets and between 31st and 35th streets to help control crowds, city spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.

“We’re preparing for the holiday weekend,” Barnett said. “We’re staffing public safety personnel for a busy summer weekend and, as always, there will be strict traffic enforcement.”

PREPARING FOR A BUSY WEEKEND

Hotel operators expect to be fully booked this weekend, said Willis Gandhi, president of the Galveston Hotel & Lodging Association. Some already were by Thursday, he said.

Gandhi also owns local properties such as Best Western Plus, 8502 Seawall Blvd.

His properties weren’t fully booked, but he expected them to be before the weekend, he said.

“People are booking up last minute,” Gandhi said. “They’re booking the same day.”

Restaurant operators expect to be busy, too, especially with state restrictions easing slightly this weekend. Starting today, restaurants can increase their seating capacity to 50 percent from 25 percent.

At Tortuga Mexican Kitchen, 6010 Seawall Blvd., that means resuming table service, said Areli Taboada, a manager at the restaurant.

Limited to only 25 percent capacity, Tortuga had shifted to counter service, requiring people to order first and then be seated to wait for their food.

This weekend probably will be busy, just like it was the first weekend beaches reopened after pandemic closures, Taboada said.

“We’re preparing for a busy weekend,” Taboada said.

During the three weeks since state orders reopened beaches May 1, people from across Texas have rushed to the island, eager to get out of the house after about two months of stay-at-home orders.

The return of tourists is vital to the island’s economy. In 2018, the $1.2 billion tourism industry drew 7.2 million people and accounted for about 9,000 island jobs, according to Galveston Park Board of Trustees data.

But whether the rest of summer delivers what Memorial Day weekend promises remains to be seen.

Those in the hotel industry are just hoping for nice weather this summer, Gandhi said.

“We just play it week by week,” Gandhi said. “There’s no guarantee what’s going to happen.”


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Port of Galveston Trustee accused of harassment — again

The Port of Galveston is investigating a harassment complaint against a trustee on its governing board in the latest development of an ongoing feud between the trustee and other stewards of the public docks.

Port officials Thursday declined to comment about the complaint and investigation, as did Ted O’Rourke, the trustee accused of harassing an unnamed port employee.

The Daily News on Thursday filed a request under the Texas Open Records Act for documents related to the hiring of an outside attorney to conduct an investigation, review or other process related to a harassment complaint or complaints against a Wharves Board trustee.

O’Rourke directed questions to his attorney, Benjamin Roberts, who said he believed his client would be exonerated.

Roberts also said he had few details about the complaint but confirmed the port had notified his client an outside attorney was conducting the investigation.

“We’re really, at this point, in the dark,” Roberts said. “We don’t understand where this is coming from.”

O’Rourke for months has been at odds with some on the port staff, particularly Port Director Rodger Rees, and other trustees.

Director of Operations Brett Milutin in December accused O’Rourke of threatening him and Rees during a conversation at a waterfront party.

O’Rourke, who was never charged with any crime, denied he made any threats and said the accusations were part of a conspiracy by Rees, Wharves Board Chairman Albert Shannon and port employees to discredit him. He offered to take a polygraph test.

The Port of Galveston Police Department in late December suspended an investigation into the allegations.

The investigation didn’t determine whether the accusation was true and would not result in any charges against O’Rourke, Port Police Chief Kenneth Brown said in December.

Rees previously had accused O’Rourke of direct involvement in port operations and instructed employees to notify him if they thought O’Rourke had overstepped his role as a board member.

In turn, O’Rourke has been publicly critical of Rees, raising issues when Rees, who earns about $240,000 a year, used a port credit card to pay for groceries. Rees, who reimbursed the port, said that was an honest mistake.

O’Rourke also blasted Rees for spending public money to give dozens of employees untaxed Christmas bonuses without board approval.

There are specific rules governing bonuses for public employees. The port is a utility of the city. State law forbids city governments from giving bonuses to employees for past work. And cities can’t give holiday bonuses to employees unless such bonuses are included in the personnel policy at the beginning of the year. But city governments can give extra pay for expectation of increased productivity.

O’Rourke, who considers himself an advocate of the port, has continued to question spending and strategy decisions Rees has made since being hired as director of the publicly owned docks in 2018.

In the late 1990s, O’Rourke questioned how former Port General Manager Ernest Connor used travel funds, and elicited an apology and a $25,000 payment from the Wharves Board after Connor responded by accusing O’Rourke of sexually harassing port employees. Connor was fired after a forensic audit into misuse of port funds.

In 2011, John Eckel, then a former chairman of the port’s governing board, in a public port meeting lambasted O’Rourke and his wife, Charlotte, for what he called a campaign to oust Steve Cernak, port director at the time.

The O’Rourkes had filed hundreds of public records requests as they scrutinized Cernak’s expenses and management.

O’Rourke in 2016 was nominated to the wharves board by Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough and was elected to the chairmanship in a 4-3 vote in June 2017.

Roberts said O’Rourke’s sole goal is to ensure the port is being held accountable on financial expenditures and that those expenditures are in the best interest of the port, city and county.


This weekend

South Shore Harbour Resort plans to reopen in League City. But what about J.C. Penney? Read all about it and more in Laura Elder’s Biz Buzz.


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Child care centers prepare for surge as economy reopens

As more businesses reopen and more parents begin returning to work, child care facilities across the county are preparing to accommodate more children while attempting to maintain social distancing.

And that’s requiring some creativity.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday announced child care facilities could reopen under strict guidelines. In Galveston County, many centers have remained open during the spring to care for the children of essential workers.

The Children’s Coalition of Galveston already was practicing all the state-recommended guidelines for reopening while it cared for the children of essential workers the past two months, Director Kimberly Boyles said.

Normally, the center, 5127 Ave. U, has about 65 students but a month ago only was teaching 18, Boyles said.

This week, the center has about 31 students, she said.

Many parents already have made arrangements for child care through May and are waiting until the end of the month to make a change, Boyles said. “It looks like we’ll have more kids come June 1.”

Child care centers that reopen or start accepting more students must limit parent and volunteer entrance into the facility, screen adults and children entering the center and maintain limited group size based on age, among other requirements, according to state guidelines.

Children’s Coalition might have to start assigning drop-off and pick-up times to parents to avoid crowding, Boyles said.

The influx of more children into child care facilities means reinforcing use of masks and hand-washing even more, said Misty Dawsey, director of Excellence Academy Child Care & Learning Center, 2801 Main St. in Dickinson.

Fifty-five children were at the center Thursday, which is a normal number during the school year, when older children are in class, Dawsey said.

‘THE PHONE IS RINGING OFF THE HOOK’

“We are starting to get a lot more parent calls beyond the essential workers,” Dawsey said. “Parents just need care.”

Because the center is putting students into smaller groups, Dawsey is seeking to hire more teachers, she said.

She already needed more teachers per student than usual to enforce social distancing and keep up with all the extra cleaning and sanitization efforts, she said.

As the state allows the opening of more businesses, child care centers are experiencing a surge of calls.

“The phone is ringing off the hook as the state is slowly opening back up,” said Samantha Humphrey, owner and director of Just 4 Kids Daycare Center, 2818 Palmer Highway in Texas City.

The center, which was down to as few as eight children of essential workers during the past two months, is back up to normal capacity at 35 to 40 students, Humphrey said.

Children entering the facility are given a temperature check and are taken to a sanitizing table.

“We check their temperature in the afternoon as well, and everything is documented,” Humphrey said.

The center is putting children into groups of six and separating them, and their teachers, from other groups, she said.

Like other facilities, Just 4 Kids increased regular sanitization. The center even bought its own carpet-cleaning machine, rather than allowing a company to do it, to reduce the number of people entering the facility, she said.

“My new role here is I’m a sanitizing person,” Humphrey said.


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Pandemic instills deeper appreciation of teachers in Galveston County

During the first week of May each year, parents and students across the nation celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week with flowers, cards and gifts.

As with most every other aspect of life, COVID-19 greatly altered the celebrations, which this year included Zoom watch parties and thank-you parades in keeping with social distancing.

After weeks of home schooling children during a pandemic, parents across the county have a newfound and much deeper appreciation for teachers, they said. And students do, too, they said.

Galveston resident Cynda Mullikin, and her 12-year-old son Andrew, a student at Satori School, said they appreciate teachers now more than ever after two months of home schooling because of campus closures.

“This experience, while unexpected, has been enlightening,” Mullikin said. “I respect his teachers so much and value what they’re teaching him. And, fortunately for us, my husband and I were both home and could help our son as needed, too.”

The pandemic and homeschooling required unexpected purchases, such as a new computer and printer Mullikin and her husband bought for Andrew to use for schoolwork. The Mullikins had to quickly learn programs such as Google Hangouts, Google Chats, Zoom and WebEx, she said.

“It’s unbelievable looking back to those early days how we felt a bit overwhelmed because now it’s like riding a bike to us,” Mullikin said. “During all of this, teachers have been available to help. Every teacher has been a strong support during this time, and we’ve never felt alone through this whole process.”

Before the pandemic, Andrew thought it was easy to teach, but he now realizes the pandemic forced his teachers to adapt and change, too, he said.

“Working from home has helped me to see that a good teacher is priceless, and that they can still educate us in any given situation,” he said. “My teachers were very helpful, and I was able to communicate with them at any time. This situation was just as hard for them as it was for me, and I’m glad they can help. The teachers were thoughtful, and I loved that they tried to make jokes and keep life as normal as possible for us.”

Andrew is looking forward to being with friends and teachers again, he said.

“I hope that we will be back in the classroom,” he said. “But even if we’re not, I know my teachers will still be able to give me the best Satori experience wherever we are.”

TEACHER SUPPORT GOES A LONG WAY

Texas City resident Ashlee Thomas, who graduated this month with an associate degree in nursing from Galveston College, has had to help her children with their online coursework, as well as complete her classwork online — all while being pregnant and giving birth in April to twins, she said.

“The most rewarding thing was actually having my children at home,” Thomas said. “I do now have a greater appreciation for teachers — especially their math teachers.”

Thomas’ oldest, Xavier Pratt Jr., a senior at Texas City High School, had to adjust to doing his schoolwork at home, he said. Home was comfortable and has more distractions than an actual classroom, he said.

“I can definitely say that I have a greater appreciation for not only my teachers, especially Coach James Sheppard, but all teachers,” Pratt said. “Although I haven’t had a chance to show my gratitude to them, I just want to let my teachers know I’m grateful for the help and effort they showed toward me. I know they have families at home to care for too, so thank you for taking the time.”

The most difficult thing was assisting with multiple grade levels and keeping her children involved with other tasks to stop them from becoming lazy, Thomas said.

“I appreciated the support the teachers and staff provided,” Thomas said. “I’ve wanted nothing more than for my children to succeed, and during this process it seemed like the odds were stacked against us. However, 2020 hasn’t been all bad because me and my first child will both receive diplomas, which gives me the most amazing feeling and I have no one but God to thank for that.”

‘THANK YOU’

For Dickinson High School senior Elaina Hubbell, working from home wasn’t as “easy” or carefree as people would think.

Hubbell was identified with learning disabilities and speech problems at the age of 3, her mother, Diana Mara, said. But with the help of Dickinson Independent School District teachers, Hubbell will be attending College of the Mainland in the summer, specializing in digital photography and advertisement.

“Elaina has worked really hard to get to where she is today,” Mara said. “I’m so grateful for all her teachers and instructional personnel who’s befriended her and were kind and helped her. She would’ve never made it without their help.”

Although the past few months have been challenging, Hubbell has no regrets and is thankful her teachers never gave up on her, she said.

“There are no words that I can say to show my teachers how much I appreciate them,” Hubbell said. “I missed them helping me and I really noticed it when they weren’t there. They helped me stay on track and stay focused even during this pandemic. All I can say is thank you.”