In an unprecedented move, the city on Sunday closed beaches to the public and banned vehicular traffic from the West End beaches as it continues to deter visitors and public gatherings.
City officials had hoped to avoid such a drastic measure, but large crowds have continued to flock to island beaches despite efforts by Galveston leaders to discourage tourism to combat the spread of coronavirus, they said.
The measure pertains to locals, also.
Mayor Jim Yarbrough signed the orders Sunday, which prohibit people from walking on the beaches as of 2:45 p.m. Sunday and ban cars, trucks, golf carts, motorcycles and mopeds from accessing the beach from FM 3005.
“I hate to do it for locals, but we’ve got to do it,” Yarbrough said.
The seawall will remain open to pedestrian and bicycle traffic, Yarbrough said.
The city kept the beaches open as long as it could, and Galveston’s beaches were among the last major stretches to close, City Manager Brian Maxwell said.
But out-of-towners wanting an escape from stay-at-home orders continued traveling to Galveston beaches, even after city leaders sent clear messages over the past two weeks that this wasn’t the time to visit.
All week, crowds of people visited the beaches and droves of people strolled along the seawall.
The city might have been able to hold off on the order if the weather hadn’t been so nice this weekend, Maxwell said.
It wasn’t just people from Houston, Maxwell said. People also had traveled from out of state to visit the island, he said.
“They kind of ruined it for everybody,” Maxwell said.
The city will enforce the orders with Galveston police and city marshals, with the help of Galveston Island Beach Patrol, Maxwell said.
Those found violating the order will be charged with a Class C misdemeanor, which allows fines of up to $500, according to the order.
By 3 p.m. Sunday, beach patrol already was asking people to leave, patrol Chief Peter Davis said.
The city will place barriers at some of the more popular access points, Maxwell said.
The city placed barriers at Sunny Beach and Hershey Beach on Saturday night and at the rest of the West End access points Sunday morning to deter cars from driving on the beach, Maxwell said.
Although Galveston beaches are overseen by the Texas General Land Office, local governments can close beach access points for emergencies related to public safety, land office spokeswoman Karina Erickson said. Coronavirus would be considered such an emergency, she said.
Beaches across the country, including South Padre Island, Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and Hallandale Beach, have closed to the public as tourism officials try to discourage people from gathering in crowds.
While Galveston beaches are closed, beaches on Bolivar Peninsula remain open.
Galveston County Judge Mark Henry has said he would close beaches if the Galveston County Health District recommended it, spokesman Zach Davidson said Sunday.
That recommendation hasn’t come yet, but the county is sending a sheriff’s deputy to peninsula beaches to assess the crowds, Davidson said.
Since the city declared a state of disaster March 16, it has closed bars and tourist attractions, limited restaurants to drive-in or take-out, shut down fishing piers and prohibited hotels, short-term rentals and bed-and-breakfasts from renting to most people. The measures are all in an effort to discourage tourists from visiting the island, officials said.
“We have tried to take systematic steps over the last week to reduce the island of tourists, and we’ve had some success, but we’re still getting day-trippers,” Yarbrough said. “We encourage you not to come.”
The orders are in effect for seven days. The Galveston City Council has a meeting planned Friday to discuss extending any orders the mayor declares.