The city of Galveston on Tuesday ordered all short-term guests staying in vacation rental properties to leave the island, closed all public fishing piers, halted charter boat trips, closed electronic amusement gaming establishments and extended its emergency disaster declaration to April 3.
The orders were the latest in a series over the past week meant to encourage tourists to leave the island, which attracts more than 7 million visitors a year, and limit large outside gatherings as city leaders attempt to reduce the spread of coronavirus.
The decree sending vacation renters home excluded hotels and motels and drew objection from the association representing the island’s short-term-rental industry.
The orders, ratified by Galveston City Council during a regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday afternoon, will be in effect at least until 5 p.m. April 3. The council plans to meet next week to evaluate whether it will need to extend those orders.
The city declared a state of disaster March 16 and since then has closed bars, tourist attractions and the dining rooms of restaurants.
“No tourists,” Mayor Jim Yarbrough said. “Period. That’s the bottom line.”
The order for short-term rental guests went into effect at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday and doesn’t apply to Winter Texans — people who spend the winter months in Galveston — or people staying for more than 30 days in a short-term rental property, Yarbrough said.
Galveston had almost 3,000 registered short-term rentals in December, according to the Galveston Park Board of Trustees, which promotes island tourism.
Unlike hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfast properties, “operators of short-term rental units do not have the professional housekeeping staff and management present to ensure that appropriate cleaning and hygiene measures are enforced,” according to the order.
Yarbrough’s order focused on short-term rentals exclusively, rather than including hotels and motels, partly because the island’s vacation rentals have a higher occupancy rate than hotels.
Island hotels have only about 6 percent occupancy, while the short-term-rental owners were reporting near full occupancy, Yarbrough said.
The park board is projecting that next week, full-service hotels and vacation rentals will be at about 10 percent occupancy and limited-service hotels will be at about 15 to 20 percent occupancy, Chief Tourism Officer Michael Woody said. That’s based on current bookings, and the pace of reservations and calls, Woody said. A full-service hotel is typically higher priced with restaurant and lounge facilities.
Yarbrough also said he wanted hotels to remain functional in case the city needs to use them to house first responders or as hospital rooms, he said.
“If you close a hotel, it doesn’t just open on a dime,” Yarbrough said.
But short-term rentals shouldn’t be singled out, said Mary Branum, president of the Short Term Rental Owners Association of Galveston.
Guests of vacation rentals are less likely to come into contact with others compared with guests of hotels or bed-and-breakfast operations, Branum said.
“Short-term rentals are individual properties, free-standing homes, where there is zero interaction with any of us,” Branum said.
Based on conversations with association members, Branum doubted occupancy was particularly high among short-term-rental properties, she said.
The short-term rental industry has always fought for what’s best for Galveston and its residents and should be treated equally with hotels, Branum said.
It’s hard to look at the order and not feel singled-out, said Claire Reiswerg, co-owner of property management company Sand ’N Sea Properties.
Sand ’N Sea has professional cleaning measures in place, such as having laundry commercially cleaned, and has for decades, Reiswerg said.
“If the goal is not to have tourists in Galveston, then let’s look at how to not have tourists in Galveston and let’s look at it holistically,” Reiswerg said.
The city council plans to meet next week to determine whether island hotels are filling up with tourists and might consider extending the order, Yarbrough said.
Enforcement will be based on good-faith trust, Yarbrough said.
“Enforcement is tough,” Yarbrough said. “It’s tough during normal times.”
The city is trying to send the signal that now is not the time to visit the island, even if Harris County or mainland residents would like a quick getaway, officials said.
“We need to be very, very careful that we’re not inviting a bunch of people down here to the island to quarantine,” City Manager Brian Maxwell said.
The island is having issues with supplying materials to its own residents and doesn’t need visitors competing, Maxwell said.
The city also ordered closed all commercial fishing piers, charter boats and electronic amusement games, including eight liners and video poker machines, as of Tuesday.