Tourists were still coming to Galveston County for spring break last week, but growing concern about coronavirus meant more of them were from nearby and fewer were booking hotel rooms.

While restaurants and some attractions had yet to feel a slowdown, other businesses serving visitors were cutting employees’ hours and facing potential long-term financial consequences, operators said.

Occupancy at Best Western Plus, 8502 Seawall Blvd., is down to 70 percent, while spring break weeks typically boast 100 percent occupancy, said owner Willis Gandhi, president of the Galveston Hotel & Lodging Association.

Most Texas school districts had scheduled spring break for either last week or this week. Almost all Galveston County school districts also extended their spring break through this week over fears about spread of coronavirus.

Gandhi has been getting last-minute bookings from Houston-area residents looking for a nearby getaway, but rates are much cheaper than normal for spring break, he said.

Gandhi has had to cut employees’ hours because demand is so low, he said.

“It’s tough on everybody,” Gandhi said. “With the hotels, we’ve still got a mortgage to pay.”

If things don’t pick up, the financial situation could look bad for island hotels, he said.

“It can get pretty ugly,” Gandhi said. “I don’t even want to think that far.”

Traffic might be lighter at the Kemah Boardwalk and other mainland attractions, but people are still coming, said Shawna Reid, spokeswoman for the Bay Area Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau.

People are calling to see whether attractions are open and with concerns about visiting, Reid said.

Galveston tourism officials were pitching the beach as a lower-risk place to visit because people won’t be packed into close confines, Galveston Park Board of Trustees Chief Tourism Officer Michael Woody said.

“We’re just making sure that everyone’s well informed,” Woody said.

At the Galveston Island Convention Center, 10 conventions rescheduled and two cancelled, Woody said. Those two conventions had attendees primarily from Asia, he said.

Restaurants were still full, said James Clark, president of the Galveston Restaurant Association.

“It’s been a wonderful spring break, to be honest,” Clark said. “It’s been a very calm vibe or atmosphere among all the guests as well.”

Restaurants are still waiting to see how next week will shape up, he said.

“It’s really an unknown area right now,” Clark said.

Some attractions have closed entirely.

Schlitterbahn Waterparks & Resort closed its Galveston park Saturday through the end of March, spokesman Aaron Martinez said.

Schlitterbahn’s hotel is remaining open, he added.

Moody Gardens remains open and has seen some decrease in attendance, spokeswoman Jerri Hamachek said.

This could mean Moody Gardens may need to reduce some of its staff’s hours, Hamachek said.

“I know, in general, the volume of traffic that comes into your doors does affect staffing that you need,” Hamachek said.

But vacation rentals are busy.

“We had a whole rush of last-minute reservations,” said Claire Reiswerg, co-owner of rental property company Sand ‘N Sea Properties.

Houston-area residents who had travel plans out of state are canceling those trips and going somewhere close, such as Galveston, instead, Reiswerg said.

Occupancy on Thursday was at 90 percent, which is 7 percent less than last year, but the company had many last-minute bookings coming in Friday, Reiswerg said.

“It’s nice for now, but we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Reiswerg said.

Mary Branum, president of the Short Term Rental Owners Association of Galveston, hasn’t had or heard of any cancellations, she said.

Branum thinks people might feel more comfortable in a short-term rental, she said.

“You’re not in a large group atmosphere,” Branum said.

The changes didn’t stop Jason Womeldorph, who was traveling the county with his family last week, from visiting, but it might have if he’d been traveling this week, he said.

The Ohio resident hasn’t really changed much about his vacation, but did decide against going to some large attractions, Womeldorph said.

“I’m second guessing myself a little because I’m reading all about Italy,” Womeldorph said. “I saw my first person wearing a mask on the beach.”

Keri Heath: 409-683-5241; or on Twitter @HeathKeri.


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(1) comment

Rick Altemose

Restaurants and bars in Galveston were mostly packed this weekend, normally very good news. Since these and other business that put people into close contact now help spread a deadly disease, we cannot afford to continue business as usual. It would be great if people would use common sense and voluntarily stay home, but the example of Italy shows that this will not happen, and that delaying the drastic measures required cost lives. Closing schools and non-essential businesses cause inconvenience to everybody and great hardship to some, but such measures are necessary. The sooner our leaders bite the bullet and do what is required, the sooner we get back to normality, and the more lives we will save.

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