Richard Polly sat under an umbrella alongside of FM 3005 with a clicker in his hand.
He’d been there since 9 a.m. Friday morning to sell some of the driftwood artwork he creates as a hobby in retirement.
While he waited for someone to stop, he also counted the cars passing through Jamaica Beach on the way to western points of Galveston Island. On Friday morning, 1,390 cars were passing him every hour.
In his judgment, that wasn’t too bad, considering all the beaches west for the next 12 miles were blocked off and closed by city order.
“I just don’t know where they’re going,” Holly said.
Galveston Island was a Twilight Zone version of itself Friday. Normally, a sunny, 90-degree Friday would draw thousands of people to the beach. Add in a holiday weekend, and the crowds could be in the tens of thousands.
The city on Wednesday, however, announced all its nearly 30 miles of beaches would be closed through the Fourth of July weekend, as a drastic pandemic precaution meant to discourage large crowds of people gathering on the beaches, on the sidewalks and inside local businesses.
Signs and barricades warning people away from the beaches went up Friday morning, and on the first afternoon of the closure it appeared most people had heeded the island’s warning to stay away — or at least to stay off the beach.
“It’s kind of sad,” said Steven Sanchez, over a snow cone he was eating at a picnic table on the north side of Seawall Boulevard. “We were planning to go to the beach, but this was about as close as we could get.”
Sanchez and his daughter, Sophia, instead opted for a round of mini-golf at a business on the north side of Seawall Boulevard. They had driven from Fort Worth to see the Gulf of Mexico for the first time. Later, they would try driving up to the Kemah Boardwalk to see what was going on there.
Seawall beaches were virtually empty on Friday afternoon. On the West End, a few people sat or walked on the beach but pleaded ignorance to the rules when approached by a reporter. One Houston man, who rented a beachfront home for his family for the weekend, asked whether it was OK under the rules for his daughters to swim in the water.
Under Galveston’s order, it wasn’t allowed.
The orders Mayor Jim Yarbrough issued closed the beaches for the first time since April, in the early days of the pandemic. Beaches had reopened May 1 and were open without restrictions on Memorial Day, the first major holiday of the summer season.
But cases of COVID-19 in Galveston County and on the island have increased drastically in recent weeks. On May 1, when the beaches first reopened, there were 45 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among island residents. On Memorial Day, there were 59 confirmed cases. As of Friday morning, 748 cases had been identified among island residents since testing began.
Health officials have attributed the rise in cases to the effects of reopening and the failure of people to follow COVID-19 precautions. Many local cases have been tied to people working in restaurants and other service jobs and to secondary infections caused by those people returning home to their families.
Galveston’s closure order didn’t shut down businesses or major attractions outright. Parking lots along Seawall were still open — though on-street parking was prohibited.
Operators of Galveston Fishing Pier arranged for its patrons to park at an unused movie theater parking lot near the pier. Despite ample room at that lot, the pier had only about 95 customers, about half its capacity, around noon on Friday, said Sandy Tyson, who was selling tickets to the pier — but only to people who wanted to fish and not just stroll the pier.
“They’re saying they had a beach house and they were looking for something to do and just want to walk on,” Tyson said. “But we can’t do that because we can’t keep up the social distancing. They have to be fishing.”
Outside the Galveston Island Pleasure Pier, Jessica Davis and her family stopped for moment to put on masks before entering the amusement park. Davis had traveled to Galveston from Kansas City earlier in the week and had been staying on the West End.
The beach closures caused the family to seek out other forms of entertainment, but without the beach or Fourth of July fireworks, Davis said the family might not be long for the island.
“It’s frickin’ sad, really,” Davis said. “The masks. All the regulations. No fireworks. Honestly, we’re thinking about going home.”