Cherie Bonneval stood in front of the automatic doors at the Kroger on Seawall Boulevard and hesitated.
Bonneval and her children weren’t wearing face masks, and warning signs posted on the main entrance of one of Galveston’s busiest supermarkets gave her pause.
The sign stated the city of Galveston had implemented a mask requirement for people entering businesses. After a moment, Bonneval turned around. She had a mask in her car, she said. As a matter of practice, she hadn’t been wearing one around town, but the newly imposed city rule had her rethinking masks, she said.
“I’m just so confused about all of this,” said Bonneval, who has been staying in Galveston for the last month. Learning about the order was a reality check for her, she said. “I’m getting chills now talking about it. What if I am putting my kids in danger? It’s starting to change for me a little bit.”
Hundreds of Galveston shoppers who had been forgoing masks during the pandemic found themselves in a new, covered-up world Tuesday. The city’s masking requirements went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. The requirements stipulate that businesses must require their employees and their customers over the age of 10 to wear face masks in places where close contact between people is possible.
Although some business owners and consumers welcomed the order, some were bracing for pushback from irate customers who believe mandatory masks are unnecessary and an intrusion on their freedom.
The requirements are meant to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and come at a time when the number of cases of coronavirus in the city of Galveston is increasing. The number of identified cases of coronavirus in the city has more than quadrupled since Memorial Day from 59 to 254.
The increase — along with the tacit approval of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — prompted Galveston to become the first city in Galveston County to create a mandatory mask order and threaten to fine businesses that don’t comply with it.
La Marque Mayor Bobby Hocking over the weekend issued a proclamation urging residents and visitors to the mainland city to wear masks in public places. Unlike Galveston’s order, La Marque’s proclamation doesn’t carry penalties for businesses or individuals who eschew masks.
At the entrances of some of Galveston’s stores and supermarkets, residents and visitors alike appeared to be following the new mask requirements, even it they weren’t particularly happy about it.
Jack Vaughan used an expletive for cow excrement to describe his feelings about the mask order as he left The Home Depot on Broadway in Galveston, although he still carried a blue hospital mask in his hand.
“I just think that people should be adult enough to decide what they want to do and not be told by the government all the time,” Vaughan said. “If you’re healthy, and you take care of yourself and you’re smart about it, it comes down to common sense.”
Ron Smith, another customer at The Home Depot, said it appeared that most people in the store were following the order, although it didn’t appear anyone in the store was telling customers to wear a face covering as they entered, he said.
Smith didn’t think it was fair that businesses could bear the brunt of punishment if people violate the order.
“If there’s going to be a rule, everybody should follow it,” Smith said. “To me, it ought to be a spot check. The police should go around and if you’re not wearing a mask, they should give you a ticket.”
The city won’t begin to issue fines for violating the sign order until Friday at soonest, officials said. The order expires a week from being in effect unless the city council on Thursday decides to extend it.
On the other side of the same parking lot, Jamie Terry, a League City resident who was shopping in Galveston’s Target store, appreciated that more people would be required to wear masks because it would mean less risk of infecting her son, who is immunocompromised, she said.
“I think it’s a very good idea to stop the spread of the virus,” Terry said. “We don’t really know what’s making it get worse, so whatever we can do to stop the spread is good.”
For businesses that have to enforce the new rule, challenges could await.
Although it’s a difficult position for businesses owners to police and deal with angry customers, the city had no other choice, said Holly Hopkins, owner of Mod Coffeehouse, 2126 Postoffice St.
Abbott on June 3 told local governments they couldn’t issue orders requiring people to wear masks or fining them for violating those rules. But Abbott gave a thumbs-up to Bexar County, home of San Antonio, which last week issued an order mandating businesses require face coverings for customers and employees.
Cities and counties can make rules ordering businesses to require face coverings and fine businesses for violating those rules, Abbott said.
Businesses shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of policing people on mask orders or be on the hook financially, Hopkins said. Businesses that violate the order face up to a $1,000 fine.
But she supports the city’s order because Abbott left local leaders with no other option after forbidding governmental entities from fining people instead of businesses, Hopkins said.
“He’s left our local municipalities with literally no other option,” Hopkins said.
More than the financial ramifications, Hopkins is worried about her employees having to leave the shop’s protective glass walls to ask people to put on masks, she said.
“We’ve already had horrible things said to us,” Hopkins said.
Other cities such as Austin, Dallas and Houston have followed San Antonio in implementing the mask order.
Businesses operators are worried about confrontations with customers at the door, said Gary Huddleston, grocery and industry consultant with the Texas Retailers Association.
“If a customer refuses to wear a face covering, then it’s up to the retailer to make the decision what to do with that specific customer,” Huddleston said.
Businesses could offer curbside service, for example, he said.
For business owners, the best approach is that cities require businesses to have a masking policy and cite them for not having such a policy, rather than citing the business if customers don’t wear masks, Huddleston said.
Galveston’s rule imposes fines to businesses that don’t have such a policy.
The Galveston Housing Authority has scrapped plans to demolish the Island Community Center, 4700 Broadway, and build a mixed-income housing development at the site to replace public housing lost during Hurricane Ike. The authority cited lack of money as the reason.
The authority in January publicly planned to replace some of the remaining 569 units lost to Hurricane Ike by razing the 4700 Broadway property it owns and rebuilding housing on the land. Galveston has 287 units of the original 569 left to replace.
A development on the 9.7 acres just north of Broadway would have been the fourth mixed-income property planned for the island.
The land was the only site both affordable and big enough to accommodate the remaining 287 public housing units the authority must build to meet the federal mandate issued a decade ago, officials said at the time.
The property seemed ideal because the authority already owned it, it was among very few large tracts and among the least likely to generate blowback from residents fearful of subsidized housing, officials said,
Galveston has been struggling for more than a decade to build 569 units lost to the 2008 storm, and the decision to drop the 4700 Broadway plan brings the housing authority back to the drawing board.
The housing authority doesn’t have the money to build a development at the community center site because most of the funding will be used to build public housing at the former Oleander Homes public housing site, 5200 Broadway, housing authority Commissioner Betty Massey said.
“There is not the money remaining in disaster funding to do two high-quality mixed-income developments,” Massey said. “We can do Oleander, but we can’t do 4700 Broadway.”
About $90 million is left from the disaster relief money allocated to replace the units lost during Hurricane Ike, and the Oleander project will use $85.7 million of it, Executive Director Mona Purgason said.
The entire Oleander development will cost $105.9 million to build, with $20.2 million coming from tax credits, Purgason said.
Developer McCormack, Baron Salazar is constructing and will manage the Oleander development as it does the mixed-income developments Cedars at Carver Park, 2915 Ball St., and Villas on The Strand, 1524 Strand St.
The lack of money means the housing authority still doesn’t know how it will fulfill its obligation to the federal government to rebuild all the 569 units lost in 2008 to Hurricane Ike. The units were demolished after being badly damaged by flooding.
The Oleander development, designed in cooperation with developer McCormack, Baron Salazar, will build 174 public housing units, Purgason said. McMormack Baron will build another 87 units built with low-income tax credits, but the housing authority isn’t certain whether those units will count toward the replacement, Purgason said.
After the Oleander development is completed, the authority will still have to replace between 26 and 113 units.
Although razing the 4700 Broadway property meant the authority and the community center’s tenants, which include Catholic Charities and the Galveston County Community Action Council, would have to move, the housing authority couldn’t find another site big enough and cheap enough to make the project happen, commissioners said.
Part of the funding challenge comes down to the fact that construction is more expensive than it was when the disaster money was allocated 10 years ago, Chairman William Ansell said.
“We’re trying to do 2020 construction with 2009 money,” Ansell said.
The housing authority isn’t sure what the plan is for the remaining units and is exploring other funding options, Massey said.
If the authority were to secure money to build a large mixed-income project, it would still need to use the 4700 Broadway site because there’s nowhere else that’s affordable, she said.
The housing authority already has used $65.4 million from the disaster relief money for mixed-income developments and the Texas General Land Office, which administers the money, used another $28.3 million to build scattered-site housing.
Despite the road block at the 4700 Broadway site, progress on the Oleander project is promising, commissioners said.
The housing authority aims to have all its federal approval and funding lined up by the end of the year and expects construction to begin early 2021.
McCormack, Baron Salazar considers Carver and Villas as success developments and plans to model the Oleander project after them, said Louis Bernardy, senior vice president and director of development, Texas for the company.
“We’ve learned from our first two developments what works and what could work better,” Bernardy said.
Although there isn’t much commercial development in the immediate vicinity of the Oleander project, Bernardy expects that to follow, he said.
The next few weeks are critical to tamping down a disturbing coronavirus surge, Dr. Anthony Fauci told Congress on Tuesday — issuing a plea for people to avoid crowds and wear masks.
Fauci and other top health officials also said they have not been asked to slow down virus testing, in contrast to President Trump’s claim last weekend that he had ordered fewer tests be performed because they were uncovering too many infections. Trump said earlier Tuesday he wasn’t kidding when he made that remark.
“We will be doing more testing,” Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health, pledged to a House committee conducting oversight of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic.
The leading public health officials spent more than five hours testifying before the committee at a fraught moment, with coronavirus cases rising in about half the states and political polarization competing for attention with public health recommendations.
Fauci told lawmakers he understands the pent-up desire to get back to normal as the United States begins emerging from months of stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns. But that has “to be a gradual step-by-step process and not throwing caution to the wind,” he said.
“Plan A, don’t go in a crowd. Plan B, if you do, make sure you wear a mask,” Fauci said.
Troubling surges worsened Tuesday in several states, with Arizona, Texas and Nevada setting single-day records for new coronavirus cases, and some governors said they’ll consider reinstating restrictions or delaying plans to ease up to help slow the spread of the virus.
Arizona, where Trump was headed for a speech at a Phoenix megachurch, reported a new daily record of nearly 3,600 additional coronavirus infections Tuesday. Arizona emerged as a COVID-19 hot spot after Gov. Doug Ducey lifted his stay-home orders in mid-May. Last week, he allowed cities and counties to require masks in public places and many have done so.
Texas surpassed 5,000 new cases for a single day for the first time — just days after it eclipsed 4,000 new cases for the first time — as America’s largest pediatric hospital began taking adult patients to free up bed space in Houston. The infection rate in Texas has doubled since late May. And Nevada surpassed a record one-day increase for the fourth time in the past eight days. Other states also were experiencing worrisome surges, including Louisiana, Utah and South Carolina.
Another worrisome trend: an increase in infections among young adults. Fauci said while COVID-19 tends to be less severe in younger people, some of them do get extremely sick and even die. And younger people also may be more likely to show no symptoms yet still spread the virus.
If people say, “’I’m young, I’m healthy, who cares’ — you should care, not only for yourself but for the impact you might have” on sickening someone more vulnerable, Fauci said.
About 2.3 million Americans have been infected and some 120,000 have died, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia asked whether Fauci regretted that the American public wasn’t urged sooner to wear face masks and then interrupted before the visibly annoyed scientist finished answering.
Fauci said he didn’t regret the change in recommendations. Early in the pandemic there was a “paucity of equipment” for health workers “who put themselves daily in harm’s way” and “we did not want to divert” those scarce supplies, he said.
Scientists eventually recommended the general public use cloth masks, after they better understood that people with no symptoms could be spreading the virus — even though they don’t offer as much protection as the sophisticated masks reserved for health workers and aren’t a substitute for staying 6 feet away from other people.
Trump, meanwhile, doubled down on testing claims that have public health experts appalled, tweeting Tuesday:
“Cases are going up in the U.S. because we are testing far more than any other country, and ever expanding. With smaller testing we would show fewer cases!“
Less testing in fact means more infections going undetected. The United States was slow in ramping up and currently is testing about 500,000 people a day. Many experts say to control the spread of the virus, it should be testing 900,000 or more.
Brett Giroir, a Health and Human Services assistant secretary, told lawmakers Tuesday the next step is testing patient samples in large batches to stretch limited supplies, which would expand U.S. screening between fivefold and tenfold.
Instead of testing each person individually, health workers would pool samples from 50, 100 or more people from the same office or school, for example. A negative result would clear everyone, while a positive would require each person to be individually re-tested.
And Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, added that it’s now recommended for workers in nursing homes — hard-hit by the virus — to be tested weekly.
As for the anxiously awaited vaccine, Fauci said he believes “it will be when and not if” it arrives, and he’s “cautiously optimistic” that some vaccine could be available at the end of the year.
More than a dozen vaccine candidates are in various stages of testing around the globe, and the United States next month is poised to begin the largest study — in 30,000 people — to get the needed proof that one really works. Meanwhile, countries, including the United States under a program called “Operation Warp Speed,” are beginning to stockpile millions of doses of different shots, in hopes at least some will prove usable.
Health officials assured lawmakers Tuesday that there won’t be shortcuts on safety.
“We absolutely must maintain regulatory independence and make the right decision for the American people based on the science and the data,” said Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn.
Pushed on whether schools should reopen in August and September, Redfield said that would vary not just by state but by school district, depending on how many infections are in a particular area.
“Many jurisdictions will be reopening schools,” and CDC will soon issue some guidelines to help, he said.
Fauci noted that schools should tailor their decisions to local conditions, saying some might need few restrictions and others more. He offered the same advice to colleges, saying they should assume some students will get infected and that there must be ways to keep them and their classmates safe.
Leaders at Shriners Hospitals for Children speak about what the future holds in Galveston.
More people are coming to Galveston, but that’s not generating the money the island’s tourism board needs to clean up after and protect the crowds, officials said.
An influx of day-trippers, rather than overnight visitors, and a drop in hotel room rates has forced the Galveston Island Park Board of Trustees to reevaluate a funding model that relies heavily on hotel occupancy tax revenue.
Litter and crowds have become hot topics as people have flocked to island beaches since they reopened May 1. In the past decade, Galveston has cultivated a reputation for overnight stays — and an inundation of day visitors is a different challenge.
The park board planned for beaches to reopen from pandemic closures June 1, based on the city’s phased reopening plan, and didn’t budget for full staff during May, park board Executive Director Kelly de Schaun said.
Meanwhile, funding for the park board’s cleaning crews and the Galveston Island Beach Patrol has become increasingly dependent on hotel occupancy tax revenues in the past 10 years, de Schaun said.
In 2010, hotel tax revenue made up 54 percent of the combined beach cleaning and beach patrol budgets — $2.7 million of the $4.9 million total, according to park board data.
By 2020, hotel tax’s share of the budget pie had grown.
The $5.3 million budget for beach cleaning and patrol combined was 90 percent funded by hotel tax revenue — $5.9 million, according to park board data.
In good times, when hotels are full and rates are rising, that’s not a problem, she said.
Although hotels have recovered their occupancy, room rates are still below normal, de Schaun said.
That poses a particular problem because the park board doesn’t have many ways to monetize day-trippers, de Schaun said.
Parking fees, such as those at the seawall and popular beach parks, are one way.
The city and park board for years have talked about the need to add more amenities at West End parks that it could charge for and collect money, and the park board should start putting more effort into that, de Schaun said.
During a Tuesday board meeting, trustees agreed they needed to move in that direction.
“We’ve talked about it for a couple years now,” Trustee Jason Worthen said.
That’s no revelation for the park board, but it’s becoming clear how much of a problem over-reliance on hotel taxes has become, Chairman Spencer Priest said.
“It’s so important to find alternate money,” Priest said. “For years, Kelly and I have been pushing for finding additional funding and now it’s really coming to a head.”
The park board wants to get more money from the state to clean beaches, de Schaun said.
This year, the park board was eligible for $3.7 million but only received $111,000, de Schaun said.
The park board wants to work with other Texas coastal cities to lobby for more money to clean beaches, she said.
With weekends so busy, the city also has been having to spend money on Galveston Police Department time to manage beach crowds, but finding a way to get more money from day visitors could help with those costs, de Schaun said.