For some local businesses, cancellation of annual Mardi Gras celebrations is more than mere disappointment — it’s a hard financial blow delivered after a year of battery.
Caterers, rental companies and others already were hurting with social distancing and pandemic-related restrictions against large gatherings. Many are holding out hope that by summer, vaccines will bring back festivals, along with the crowds and their spending power.
Galveston’s Mardi Gras already was sputtering by the time the city council officially canceled sanctioned events in late December. Multiple krewes — social clubs that stage many of the events — already had canceled parades and balls over concerns about attracting large groups.
It was a big loss for Evelyn George, owner of Evelyn’s Tuxedo Rental, 1017 Bayou Road in La Marque.
She counts on Mardi Gras revelers to rent tuxedoes and buy ball gowns, she said. This year business has ground almost to a halt, George said.
By now, she should have had between 20 and 30 tuxedo rentals, George said. As of Thursday, she had one.
“It’s really, really put a hurt on the business,” George said.
She also makes alterations, which has kept up relatively steady business, but formal rentals and sales have plummeted, she said.
“People aren’t going anywhere,” George said. “This is a tough year.”
The 12-day Mardi Gras period normally brings 250,000 people to the island, but private parties and krewe events normally begin Mardi Gras season as early as December. Mardi Gras season traditionally starts with Epiphany, the Christian holiday that commemorates the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus on Jan. 6.
In addition to colorful beads, lively parades and general mirth, Mardi Gras means money.
A 2019 study estimates the festival generates $15 million in economic impact locally.
That impact includes increased tips for service industry employees and revenue for hospitality and rental companies, said Mike Dean, owner of Yaga’s Entertainment. The company has hosted Mardi Gras for the past 10 years.
The contract for future festivals hasn’t yet been finalized.
“You’re in the thick of that season right now,” Dean said. “The hotels and the rental spaces that host all those things, those guys are drawing zero.”
Luckily for some, COVID-19 so far hasn’t undercut interest in king cake, the popular Epiphany treat associated with the festival.
At Gypsy Joynt, 2711 Market St., bakers already have made a few dozen king cakes.
“However, it’s not for parties, we’ve noticed,” owner Merry Weller said.
King cakes have become a staple during Mardi Gras season for Gypsy Joynt, Weller said. The restaurant also has made a king cake-flavored cake and savory king cakes.
Customers are probably buying the cakes because they want to celebrate in small, personal ways. Weller wasn’t sure whether she’d get many orders for events, she said.
“Everything’s so unpredictable these days,” Weller said. “I don’t know what people are doing with their personal Mardi Gras.”
The picture is a little different for Rustika Cafe & Bakery, 610 East Main St. in League City, where demand for king cakes is about half what it was last year, manager Tom Nguyen said.
“People are not comfortable with having large gatherings,” Nguyen said.
King cakes aren’t a huge chunk of Rustika’s business, but they contribute, he said.
Normally, Mardi Gras season promises busy weeks for area caterers, but with parties and balls canceled, business is slow.
Catering by Benno, 112 28th St., normally caters multiple krewe events and private parties, but none of that is happening.
The cancellation of Mardi Gras was a kick in the teeth at a time when many businesses are already hurting, said Elaine Deltz, catering manager. The holidays normally bring numerous catering orders, but not 2020, she said.
“It’s been a very tough year to get through,” Deltz said.
Benno has delivered catered food for some smaller events, but it just isn’t the same, Deltz said.
For Del Papa Distributing Company, the hit is more in brand exposure than in revenue, said Peter Williamson, vice president of corporate relations and communications.
The alcohol distribution company, 1220 Interstate 45 in Texas City, won’t be hurting because of Mardi Gras’ cancellation, but it does benefit from visitors outside Galveston County coming to the area, he said. The company often sponsors parts of Mardi Gras.
“In terms of brand exposure and sampling opportunities for the consumers, it’s a missed opportunity for sure,” Williamson said.
Some festivals are happening this year.
League City is hosting a Jan. 23 Mardi Gras family- friendly event in League Park, 512 2nd St. Children, pets and pet owners will be able to march in a socially distanced parade around the park, spokeswoman Sarah Greer Osborne said.
People can also watch the Yachty Gras boat parade from the Kemah Boardwalk, 215 Kipp Ave., or Seabrook Marina & Shipyard, 1900 Shipyard Drive, parade Executive Director Maurine Howard said. The parade organizers are asking people to wear masks and social distance on the docks, she said.
The winter will be hard, but many business owners are optimistic that things will pick up this spring and summer as COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available.
Catering by Benno already has most Saturdays booked in June, Deltz said.
“I’ve had a lot of interest in late spring, early summer,” Deltz said. “It’s hopefully a ray of sunshine.”
People walking along the beach Friday afternoon might have come across some researchers carrying buckets full of green sea turtles.
The scientists, part of a slew of regional marine animal organizations, placed the buckets in the wet sand, picked up the 25 turtles, set them in the waves, then watched while the turtles scuttled out to sea.
The operation was part of an effort to rescue and rehabilitate 51 green sea turtles that scientists found Wednesday in east Matagorda Bay, where they had been stunned during the recent wintery snap.
This was the first release of recovered cold turtles of what’s been a relatively warm year.
Staff members from Texas A&M University at Galveston’s Gulf Center for Sea Turtle Research oversaw the release of about 25 of the 51 turtles Friday.
The scientists in waders carried the turtles to the water’s edge at 4500 Seawall Blvd. and watched as the reptiles shuffled into the waves. A few got a little turned around before they finally headed into the chilly surf. A small gathering of onlookers snapped pictures and cheered when the final turtle had made it out of sight.
Not all of the turtles were ready to be released, said Christopher Marshall, director of the sea turtle center.
The turtles had to pass a swim test to ensure they’d survive in the water, he said.
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department staff found the 51 turtles along about 2.5 miles of Matagorda Bay, fish and wildlife technician Caren Collins said.
The cold weather this week chilled the water below 50 degrees, which makes the bodies of the cold-blooded reptiles start to shut down, Collins said.
The wildlife department staff typically take patrol boats along the coast after a cold spell, said Scott Watson, a fish and wildlife technician.
“We just found a bunch of them,” Watson said.
The staff knows to look for shiny, gray spots in the water because the sun reflects off the stunned turtles’ shells, he said.
The department sent the 51 turtles to Sea Center Texas in Lake Jackson overnight and Thursday contacted the university’s Sea Turtle Center, Watson said.
Cold stuns are typical for this time of year, but 51 is quite a few.
“This is the coldest time of year,” Marshall said. “They stop swimming. They stop eating. We had quite a few hit by boats.”
Once the turtles warm up and the water temperature rises above 50 degrees, scientists like to get the turtles back in the water as soon as possible, he said.
Green sea turtles are one of five species in the region. All those species are either threatened or endangered.
The Texas A&M center still has eight Kemps ridley sea turtles from Cape Cod that are undergoing rehabilitation, Marshall said. Those turtles are doing well and hopefully will be released soon, he said.
The Texas Master Naturalists and Houston Zoo also participated in the rescue and release.
Watching the events of Jan. 6 reminded Kimberly Grubbs of Sept. 11, 2001, she said.
As she flipped through the different news stations — CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, the local channels — to see how everyone was covering the riot at the Capitol, she couldn’t help but notice how similar they all were, she said.
“There was no slant — they just all had that same shock,” Grubbs, a League City resident and devoted Republican, said.
Republican voters in Galveston County in days since the attack on the U.S. Capitol have reached differing conclusions about the party’s future, about Donald Trump’s role in inciting the events of Jan. 6 and about their decision to support him in previous elections.
It’s not clear how representative the views of those interviewed are of Republicans generally. Several Republicans contacted for comment for this story declined.
U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, a Republican representing much of Galveston County, did not respond to requests for comment by deadline Friday evening.
But the one constant refrain was that Americans must somehow put aside the divisions of the last four or more years if they want to create a better future.
“The division is the saddest thing I’ve ever witnessed,” said Stacy Parsons, a Republican who lives in Friendswood. “I hate that I have to witness it in my lifetime. I especially hate that my children have to witness it. It’s gotten bad, especially in the last 10 years or so.”
The House of Representatives on Wednesday impeached Trump on a single charge of incitement of insurrection.
The riot delayed the tally of Electoral College votes that was the last step in finalizing President-elect Joe Biden’s victory as lawmakers fled for shelter and police, guns drawn, barricaded the doors to the House chamber.
A Capitol Police officer died from injuries suffered in the attack, and police shot and killed a woman. Three other people died in what authorities said were medical emergencies.
In the hours before the attack, Trump appeared before a large gathering of supporters and urged them to “fight like hell,” according to The Associated Press.
Some local Republicans, such as Seth Alford, of League City, were surprised just how far Trump took the claim that the election had been stolen.
“I would have lost money, if someone had told me the president would push things this far,” Alford said. “I would have said, ‘I don’t think so. That’s beyond the pale.’ I would have lost that bet.”
Since losing the November election, Trump has advanced a conspiracy theory that the election was stolen and that Democrats committed fraud to swing several states in Biden’s favor.
But not all Galveston County Republicans believe Trump is responsible for the violence at the Capitol that followed his speech on Jan. 6.
“Do I think that he bears responsibility, or in the narrative, incited this?” said H. Scott Apley, a Dickinson resident and committeeman for Senate District 11 on the Republican Party of Texas state board. “I 100 percent dismiss that. It’s all political gamesmanship. I think of it in the same way that Republicans didn’t blame Bernie Sanders when a madman shot Steve Scalise at a softball game.”
James T. Hodgkinson, who supported Sanders and opposed Trump, shot Scalise, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and two others during a congressional baseball practice. Police shot and killed Hodgkinson after the incident.
Apley, however, conceded that while there were some irregularities with the election, Trump’s attorneys never quantified or proved claims of voter fraud, and therefore the country needs to accept that Biden won the election.
Alford, likewise, thought there might be some irregularities in the election but that, on the whole, it was legitimate, he said.
“I don’t believe in the conspiracy theories behind it,” he said. “Were there inconsistencies? Of course. But there were in ‘16 as well.”
The Republicans who spoke with The Daily News drew a distinction between the often boisterous persona Trump has exhibited since his election and their support for Republican principles more generally.
“Everyone votes personally,” Alford said.
Alford voted for Trump both in 2016 and 2020 because he felt his policies would most benefit his family, he said.
Parsons, in contrast, was long drawn to Trump’s background as a businessman and didn’t believe he was behind the attack on the Capitol, which she called sad.
“I’ve long felt that our country needed to be run by a businessman,” she said. “Someone who was not there being paid. With Trump, I know he’s arrogant and has a mouth, but I feel he has the country at heart.”
Parsons doesn’t believe Trump was responsible for the riot, which she said broke her heart.
Parsons also said something about the election doesn’t make sense to her, as she saw many more Trump than Biden signs during her travels, she said.
But Parsons in recent days also has questioned whether Republican voters have gone too far, she said.
“It’s a constant struggle for myself as well,” she said. “You hear about the conspiracy theories and you think ‘are we getting ridiculous?’”
The QAnon conspiracy theory, in particular, is troubling, Parsons said. She’d prefer for politicians to stick more to the political negotiating they’re doing.
But Grubbs, who described herself as a lifelong Republican conservative, took a darker view of recent events than some of her compatriots, she said.
Grubbs voted for Trump but became concerned during the pandemic, when watching him turn coronavirus into a political rallying cry while she was working in an intensive care unit in a hospital, she said.
“For the first part of his presidency, from a business perspective of less government and regulation, I was very supportive,” she said. “But for the last part, as an ICU nurse, you could see COVID wasn’t a hoax. It wasn’t political. That was my first real impetus of ‘what in the world is he thinking?’”
Grubbs also believes Trump incited the crowd to attack the Capitol, she said.
“His rhetoric, his nonverbal body language, his mannerisms, he did incite the call to violence,” she said. “He doesn’t have the right, as POTUS, to not understand what his communication can mean.”
Grubbs, however, doesn’t know whether it’s the government’s job to stop Trump from running for office again, she said. She hopes voters have learned, and that he wouldn’t win the nomination.
But she is open to the possibility of bringing criminal charges against Trump, if the law allows for it, she said.
“I don’t know what the legal definitions and specific laws would or wouldn’t be,” she said. “I assume it’s criminal, but I don’t know. It needs to be looked at. Did he break laws? If yes, then I don’t care how minute, it has to be followed through.”
Despite Parsons’ disappointment about the election and subsequent events, she now believes it’s time to move forward as a country and accept Biden as president, she said.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you I hate Biden, because I don’t hate him,” she said. “He was not my selection. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t give him a chance, or pay attention to him.”
COVID-19 vaccines will soon resume flowing into Galveston County, but after a week of scheduling and supply turmoil, officials said they still were short on details about timing and availability.
The University of Texas Medical Branch announced Friday it was scheduled to receive 4,000 vaccine doses in coming days, while the Galveston County Health District announced it would receive an allocation of 400 doses.
The announcements come days after local officials announced they had run out of vaccines and complained they had been shorted on expected supplies by changes in the state’s vaccinations plan.
Even with a promise of new vaccinations coming, it was unclear when they would arrive, officials said.
The Galveston County Health District learned Thursday it would receive a shipment of 400 doses, district spokeswoman Ashley Tompkins said.
“We do not have it in hand and we do not know when it’s going to be here,” Tompkins said.
Vaccinations in the county came to an abrupt halt this week after state officials directed shipments to locations in large urban centers, instead of suburban and rural counties.
The shift in the state’s program led the medical branch to cancel more than 6,000 vaccination appointments. People who had been anticipating starting their vaccinations this week were told it was now unclear when their appointments would be rescheduled.
The arrival of 4,000 new doses of vaccines to the medical branch will not cover all of the people who had their appointments postponed, medical branch spokesman Christopher Smith Gonzalez said. The medical branch will begin reaching out to people who had their vaccinations postponed, starting with those who are considered at highest risk, Smith Gonzalez said
This week’s priority shift drew objections from and caused frustration among local leaders, who complained about the unpredictability of vaccine shipments. During the four weeks vaccines were shipped to the county, local distributors have received as few as 1,500 doses and as many as 6,250.
In some weeks, only one location in the county has received a new shipment of vaccines; in other weeks as many as nine locations received shipments, according to state records.
On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced plans to move more cities toward a vaccination hub model such as being used in Houston and Arlington. It was unclear whether the latest doses for Galveston County would be distributed in a centralized fashion.
Similarly, President-elect Joe Biden announced on Thursday evening he planned to deploy FEMA and the National Guard to build vaccination clinics around the country. Biden said he wanted 100 million Americans to be vaccinated within his first 100 days in office.
What mass vaccinations would look like in the county isn’t clear, but it’s being discussed.
County officials held a call this week with city leaders and hospital officials to discuss places in the county that might be used as mass vaccination sites — such at the cruise terminals at the Port of Galveston or other large buildings. As of Friday, however, no plans had been announced.
The medical branch plans to have a system in place for people to sign up for vaccination appointments by Jan. 25, Smith Gonzalez said. The system will allow people to sign up for vaccination appointments as long as they qualify under the state’s current eligibility guidelines, Smith Gonzalez said.
The timing of the actual start of public vaccinations will depend on the national vaccine supply, he said.
As of Friday, 15,749 county residents, about 4 percent of the county’s population over the age of 16, had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination. The county’s rate is higher than the statewide vaccination rate of 3.96 percent of people being vaccinated.
Public health officials have said the goal is to vaccinate 70 percent or more of the population against the virus. Officials have said that it could take between 12 weeks and 18 weeks to complete vaccinations within the current current group of eligible people.