With cancellations late Wednesday night of popular island events Ironman 70.3 and Dickens on The Strand, Galveston’s festival season is shaping up to be among the worst of times for shops, restaurants and hotels relying on wintertime happenings to bring people to the island.
Meanwhile, organizers of other major Mardi Gras krewes said Thursday they might follow the lead of the Knights of Momus, which canceled its events early this week.
It was especially bad news during a year that already has been tough for businesses because of government restrictions meant to battle, and behavior changes among consumers trying to navigate, the coronavirus pandemic.
Officials with the Ironman 70.3 Texas, a half-Ironman triathlon, announced Wednesday they wouldn’t hold the event Saturday as planned. Organizers cited a public safety alert in Harris County and stay-at-home orders in Dallas and Travis counties. In a statement, company officials pointed to the fact many athletes were traveling from around Texas and to a Harris County text alert sent Tuesday night urging people to stop gathering and get tested for COVID-19.
The text alert didn’t change any active policies in Harris County.
In a statement posted late Wednesday on the Ironman website, the company also cited the acceleration of COVID-19 infections in Texas.
“While we are disappointed that we are not able to have the event in 2020, we feel this is the right decision and we thank our athletes for their understanding at this late juncture,” company officials said in a statement.
The race will return April 11.
Many racers expressed frustration about the late announcement on a race social media account. Michelle McClenahan already was halfway to Galveston from her home in Wyoming when she awoke to the news Thursday, she said.
“We kind of figured that it was going to be canceled anyway,” McClenahan said. She planned to continue her drive to Galveston and vacation on the island, she said.
DICKENS ON THE SQUARES
Galveston Historical Foundation also announced late Wednesday it would cancel its popular Victorian holiday event Dickens on The Strand, which had been scheduled for Dec. 4 and Dec. 5.
The foundation already had retooled the event — dubbed Dickens on The Squares — by planning to stage it at five off-street, private lots around downtown Galveston with limited, timed ticketing.
It’s a shame to cancel the event, but that was never out of the question, said Dwayne Jones, executive director of the foundation.
“We always said if there was a substantial spike in cases, then we would not do it,” Jones said.
This year would have been the 47th year of the festival, which is one of the longest running in Galveston.
“It was hard,” Jones said. “We’ve never skipped a year.”
The event also is the single largest fundraiser for the foundation.
The board made the call Wednesday afternoon, President Hal Rochkind said. Board members, when they decided in October to move forward with the event, had hoped cases would be declining now, he said.
“We were hoping for the best, but it didn’t turn out that way,” Rochkind said. “It’s a very tough decision.”
Both events are major draws to Galveston. Ironman normally brings in 2,500 people who stay overnight in hotels and eat in restaurants. About 800 people had registered for this year’s event.
Dickens on The Strand typically attracts 35,000 people and is one of the best shopping days of the year for many downtown businesses.
“It hurts downtown,” said Trey Click, executive director of the Historic Downtown Galveston Partnership. “Let’s just be honest. Dickens is one of those events that pretty much everybody likes.”
The Dickens attendees typically shop, making it an important day on the downtown calendar, he said.
“It’s our best day of the year,” said Wendy Morgan, owner of The Admiralty, 2221 Strand St., and Tina’s on The Strand, 2326 Strand St.
She understood the need to cancel, but it’s sad, she said.
“It’s just a shame that the conditions are the way they are,” Morgan said.
But it’s not all bad news.
“Business has been quite good lately,” Morgan said. “We’ve had great shoppers and quality shoppers.”
Although the year has hurt, it hasn’t been as bad as predicted, Click said. And while the festivals bring people to the island during the winter, there’s a less dramatic shift in visitation to the island now than there once was, he said.
“We do love the events, but we’re becoming less and less dependent on them,” Click said.
The lights also are dimming on the island’s pre-Lenten Mardi Gras festival, which draws about 250,000 people to the island each year.
Galveston’s oldest and largest krewe, the Knights of Momus, pulled out of the festivities earlier this week, and other social clubs are following.
The Krewe of Aquarius likely will cancel its parades on the first Saturday of the festival and on Fat Tuesday, said Johnny Lidstone, krewe captain.
“The whole Mardi Gras is collapsing as we speak,” Lidstone said. “There was no possible way to social distance on a float.”
The Krewe Babalu, which also hosts a Fat Tuesday parade, has a meeting next week, President David Pitre said.
“I’m going to propose we cancel everything except maybe the Epiphany party,” Pitre said, adding that the party could be socially distanced.
The Krewe of Gambrinus will make a decision after Thanksgiving, according to the krewe.
Mardi Gras is a city-sponsored event, and the city has yet to make a call about the festival.
The Galveston City Council plans to discuss the event at its Dec. 10 meeting, Mayor pro tem Craig Brown said. Brown is acting as mayor.
But with the trend of cancellations from the krewes, it appears the festival might not happen, he said.
The organizers of events that already have been canceled, such as the motorcycle Lone Star Rally and Dickens, were making good calls in the interest of safety, he said.
“I think what it signals is the concerns that these organizations have for maintaining safety,” Brown said.
But as for the event cancellations signaling whether Galveston could enter another shutdown phase?
“I don’t see any need for that type of discussion at this point,” Brown said. “That could change.”
That change would depend on the positivity rate of cases and direction from Gov. Greg Abbott, Brown said.