Beach Patrol busy keeping people off beaches during pandemic

A couple walks a dog on the beach near Long Tom Court in Pirates Beach in Galveston on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. The city closed the beaches March 29 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

GALVESTON

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.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; john.ferguson@galvnews.com or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

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(16) comments

Allison Buchtien

It's going to be a mad house on the island this weekend. [crying]

Carlos Ponce

MAY DAY! MAY DAY!

Charlotte O'rourke

Does anyone know if this means the beach is fully open - chairs & umbrellas and sunbathing - Or just for exercise?

Also this surprised me - that local control was taken away - because while Texas beaches are public the land to the beach is not. For example, what is called Stewart Beach is actually owned by the city. A lot of the land to the beach on Seawall is also actually privately owned.

Allison Buchtien

I think it means it is open for all activities.

Charlotte O'rourke

Thanks.

Michelle Aycoth

Party !!!

Me and my 100 best friends headed that way !

Andy Aycoth

Charlotte O'rourke

What happened to the promise that Texas wouldn’t reopen unless covid 19 cases and deaths started declining for 14 days?

AUSTIN, Texas — The number of reported illnesses diagnosed as caused by the coronavirus spiked across Texas on Wednesday, as did the death count, just two days before many businesses in the state will be allowed to reopen their doors.

The number of virus-related deaths reported to the state rose by 42 to 732, the second-highest daily increase in Texas’ death toll since the start of the pandemic.

Harris County, which includes Houston, continued to lead the state in confirmed Covid-19 cases reported to health officials with 5,986, almost 2,000 more than the day before. It also continued to lead in virus deaths with 103, five in one day.

Bailey Jones

What happened was that it didn't happen.

"Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry."

Charlotte O'rourke

So much for data, science, and benchmarks as guiding lights.

The phased approach was spot on. If the governor would only follow his own rhetoric and plan, he would have a good chance of succeeding in saving our economy and lives.

Doug Sivyer

Abbotts and idiot. Must be related to the Governor of Georgia. Anyone that thinks it's any safer today than it was 4 weeks ago needs to have their head examined.

Carlos Ponce

Your opinion is noted. We will give it all the credence it deserves. [sleeping]

Gary Miller

Doug> It wasn't as dangerious 4 weeks ago as Democrats said it was. It was an excuse to create the recession they were begging for.

Wayne D Holt

Anyone who thinks it was more dangerous to be on an open beach four weeks ago than it is today is...mistaken.

Charlotte O'rourke

It is one thing to have different ideas and beliefs of when we should reopen. But be honest. Government shouldn’t provide crap and wrap it in lies and call it a rose.

Gary Miller

Opinions vary. Liberal cities, Galveston in Conservative counties or Houston in Harris county produce differing opinions. Was the shutdown for Covid 19 or to create a recession? Democrats, controlling barely over 600 counties with over 2,500 conservative counties of the US 3113 total dominate the big population centers and have more influence than their numbers indicate. With the help of liberal media big city Mayors have unreasonable influence on local policy. For months Democrats were begging for a recession and Covid 19 just happened to be just what they needed. From now to election day Blue Cities, Counties and States will try to stop any recovery while Conservative Cities, counties and States try to rebuild.

Wayne D Holt

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.”

Gee, I wish I wish I was a billionaire. Then maybe people would have listened when I said this same thing in these columns weeks and weeks ago. Ron, Chuck and Gary could also use a few billion to add street cred to their common sense and ability to understand what statistics mean.

Mayor Yarbrough wasn't the only one who was relieved decisions like this were no longer in his hands. My only regret was that it happened in May instead of March.

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