Open and they will come. And Friday, they did.
After being cooped up for weeks in their homes under measures to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, hundreds of locals and visitors from across the region headed for beaches and businesses that opened across the county under new state orders that eased pandemic restrictions.
Residents were fairly split about the reopening, with some ready to return to some semblance of normalcy and others nervous that more interactions could cause a spike in COVID-19 cases. As people begin to venture from their homes, continuing to contain the coronavirus, which in Galveston County has been relatively controlled, will be a matter of personal responsibility, health experts said.
By Friday afternoon, groups of tourists with umbrellas, coolers and lawn chairs scattered across the beaches while people rode bicycles and surreys along the seawall.
Open parking spaces along the south side of Seawall Boulevard were scarce and while almost no one on the beach wore masks, the visiting groups kept their distance from one another.
Gov. Greg Abbott this week laid out a plan to reopen parts of the Texas economy, allowing restaurants, movie theaters, malls and some other businesses to operate at 25 percent capacity. Abbott chose to keep bars, gyms and barber shops closed.
Abbott didn’t mention beaches during his Monday address, but after several days of confusion, local leaders confirmed the governor wanted beaches open starting Friday.
In Galveston, beaches had been closed since March 29 and had opened with limited morning hours on Monday.
SAFE ON THE BEACH
Monica Acosta and Israel Hernandez drove from Houston to get out of the house after weeks of isolation, they said.
Friday was their first time traveling to Galveston beaches in years, but they made the trip because they had been so bored stuck at home, Acosta said.
Still, Acosta is nervous about coronavirus.
“You’ve got to still be careful,” she said.
Houston residents Ashley Alvarado and Suzie Rios brought their children to the beach to have some fun, they said.
Alvarado feels healthy and has been staying at home since mid-March but is still taking precautions, she said.
“This is probably the only place I will be out,” she said.
Sitting under a blue beach canopy near 27th Street, she pointed to the next closest canopy, which is several yards away, which made her feel safe on the beach, she said.
That’s the attitude Peyton Shipwash and her mother, Tracey Guidry, had too.
The pair from La Porte have been working from home and haven’t been out in public, but they considered the beaches safe, Shipwash said.
“It’s an outdoor activity,” she said.
OUT TO EAT
But some residents aren’t confining themselves to outdoor activities and are ready to get back to their favorite shops and restaurants. Abbott said Monday restaurants and retail shops could reopen but at 25 percent of their listed capacity.
Diners Jani Cammarano and her husband, Gio, were at Red Oak Cafe, 6011 W. Main St., in League City. They were enthusiastic about not only the opportunity to dine out but to do their part in supporting a struggling economy, they said.
“All of us need to get back to normal,” Jani Cammarano said. “That’s the only way we can beat the fear of dying from this disease and get our economy back to normal.”
The Cammaranos live in downtown Houston but own a boat docked at the Waterford Harbor Marina in Kemah. Before the shutdown, they said, they would eat frequently in the Red Oak Cafe’s dining room, which now at the 25 percent maximum capacity can seat 27 customers at a time.
“We religiously came to this place to have breakfast,” Jani Cammarano said. “We missed it greatly.”
The Red River Cantina, 1911 E. Main St., in League City added a tent-covered outdoor seating area in front of the restaurant to serve more customers. At 25 percent capacity, the Red River Cantina can accommodate 40 customers at a time outside, plus 70 inside the restaurant. Restaurant manager Jim Molina was pleased with the steady flow of customers at lunchtime and expected a large crowd for dinner Friday night.
Aimee Middleton and her husband, David, who live near the Red River Cantina, said they missed the social aspect of dining out and were happy to be back at one of their favorite spots in town. The couple also plans to continue dining out going forward.
“We’re already making plans for Cinco de Mayo,” David Middleton said.
BACK IN BUSINESS
Some business owners are a little apprehensive.
The Admiralty, 2221 Strand St., and Tina’s on The Strand, 2326 Strand St., in Galveston both opened their doors Friday but not without significant precaution, owner Wendy Morgan said.
In addition to a frequent and strict cleaning regimen, the stores are requiring their customers to wear masks and apply hand sanitizer before coming in and asking them to respect social distancing, Morgan said.
Many are happy to comply but some don’t want to, she said, adding that some customers were rude to her employees when asked to wear a mask.
“We really want to be as safe as we can,” Morgan said.
But it’s hard to know what’s safe enough, she added.
Other business owners don’t feel comfortable opening their doors yet.
Gino’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria, 6124 Stewart Road in Galveston, will stick to to-go and delivery orders for the time being, owner Emanuele Minardi said.
“I think it’s too soon to open at this time,” Minardi said.
Without the dining room open, sales have been down, but Minardi wants to be sure employees and customers will be safe, he said.
Minardi wants to see the number of people testing positive in the region to drop before he’ll feel comfortable opening his dining room doors, he said.
WILL IT WORK?
If businesses and the public at large abide by Abbott’s guidelines, the gradual reopening he has prescribed could work, said Laura Rudkin, a professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Population Health at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
“There’s a lot of good information in the guidelines, consistent with what other public health organizations and other states are saying,” Rudkin said.
Unfortunately, not everyone has read the guidelines and some simply won’t follow them carefully, Rudkin said.
It’s up to the majority of people to make good decisions and act responsibly as they re-enter the community and risk coming in contact with the virus, she said.
Rudkin recommends masking if possible and a safe 6-foot distance from others in public, including outdoor spaces such as the beach, fishing piers and parks.
The bottom line is that people need to practice personal responsibility, she said.
“People out in the community who are at high risk have to rely on themselves to make good decisions and there’s no enforcement of that,” Rudkin said. “So, it’s really up to individuals and households to decide how much risk they’re willing to take on for themselves, their family and others.”