The decision to open or close Galveston’s beaches is out of the city council’s hands.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas General Land Office on Wednesday informed Galveston County and city officials that Abbott intended to order Texas beaches opened on Friday, the same day Texas restaurants, retail stores and other businesses will be able to open their doors on a limited basis.
“The general land office says the beaches are open Friday,” Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough said. “Their interpretation is that the beaches are open Friday.”
County and city officials confirmed they were in direct contact with Abbott’s office and the land office Wednesday and learned about the directive around 2:30 p.m.
At about 5 p.m., the land office sent directions to beach managers across the state, announcing its stance on opening.
“The GLO is rescinding its approval for local governments to close beaches due to COVID-19, effective April 30, 2020 at 11:59 p.m.,” the land office letter stated. “The GLO understands that conditions may change, and local governments are required to contact the GLO for prior approval for any future closures of the beach to vehicles or pedestrians, closures of beach access points, time limitations, or restrictions on particular uses or activities on the beach.”
The decision concluded a confusing 48-hour period during which COVID-19 control of Texas’ beaches was unclear.
Last week, Abbott told a Fort Worth-based radio show he intended to have beaches open as part of his much-anticipated reopening plan.
When the plan was announced Monday, however, Abbott didn’t mention beaches once in a 45-minute address about the plan. Beaches were not mentioned in a 64-page document outlining the state’s reopening policy or in executive orders mandating the plan be followed.
The omission led local leaders to assume the decision to reopen beaches would remain a local-government decision going into the weekend.
On Tuesday, however, Tilman Fertitta, owner of Landry’s Hospitality empire, said Abbott had planned to open beaches May 1. Fertitta, a Galveston native with vast holdings in Galveston, including the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, was a member of Abbott’s reopening task force.
Fertitta’s understanding differed even from the land office’s, which continued to say beach closures were a local decision.
The state agencies appeared to get on the same page Wednesday and passed the news on to city and county leaders.
Galveston County and city leaders had tried for two days to get clarification from Abbott’s office about the beaches, said Tyler Drummond, chief of staff for Galveston County Judge Mark Henry.
“We were just trying to answer questions that we were receiving from the public,” Drummond said.
The land office’s letter to beach managers cited a section of the reopening plans that encourages outdoor activities to resume, as long as people take precautions to minimize contact with others who aren’t from their own households. There no longer are restrictions against sitting or lying on the sand.
Fertitta on Wednesday declined to comment about whether he, in his role as a member of Abbott’s task force, influenced the decision to reopen island beaches.
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the local governments of Galveston County, Galveston and Jamaica Beach have had control over beach access decisions.
The cities have made varying decisions on access. Galveston mostly closed its beaches to all people beginning March 29. Galveston County closed beaches on Bolivar Peninsula for four days around the Easter holiday, and Jamaica Beach has stayed open for pedestrians.
The decision-making ability was granted to local governments by the land office. That ability has now been rescinded.
The Galveston City Council was scheduled to vote today on what changes, if any, to make to its beach access policies. It now appears such a vote won’t be needed, Yarbrough said.
“I told the General Land Office ‘thank you and no thank you,’” Yarbrough said. “They’ve made our job easier. It’s not my decision, it’s yours. I don’t agree with it, but it doesn’t matter what I agree or disagree with — t’s your decision.”
Throughout the COVID-19 response, Yarbrough has advocated for city beaches to remain closed to prevent large crowds from gathering on the island and possibly exposing residents and visitors to COVID-19 carriers.
Opinions have been split about whether closing the beaches was effective.
Last weekend, a surge of visitors traveled to the island, crowding sidewalks and parking lots on Seawall Boulevard.
Fertitta said it was safer to open the beaches than encouraging people to congregate on the seawall.
“When you take all those people on the seawall and spread them out on the sand, we’re going to have much better social distancing and that’s what it’s all about,” Fertitta said. “Any time there’s more real estate, it’s going to be safer.”
Abbott on Tuesday told Houston TV station FOX 26 that he would make clarifications to his order. That promise came after Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough challenged Abbott’s order and said he would allow all businesses to reopen, rather than just the ones named by Abbott.
Keough called Abbott’s orders unclear and vague. Abbott, who called Keough a friend, said he understood the confusion and would issue clarifications to resolve the questions.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Abbott had no public addresses scheduled for today. He hadn’t issued any public statements clarifying his Monday orders.