Beaches on Bolivar Peninsula are some of the last still open in Texas and, as of Monday, Galveston County had no plans to shut off access to those 27 miles of sand and surf, officials said.
A day after the city of Galveston made the unprecedented decision to close its beaches to prevent people from gathering there, county leaders said they’ve had calls to make the same decision for the unincorporated beaches on the peninsula. As of Monday, the choice was to stay open, officials said.
“We’re struggling with it,” said Galveston County Commissioner Darrell Apffel, who represents the peninsula. “We believe that if we close the beaches we have to close them to the residents as well.”
The county has increased the number of sheriff’s and constable’s deputies patrolling the beaches, they said. The deputies have been directed to break up any large gatherings they encounter on the beaches, Apffel said.
The Galveston County Sheriff’s Office has four units patrolling the beaches, along with four units from two different constables’ offices, Apffel said, explaining the deputies will submit reports daily about how many people are on the beaches.
“If it becomes a problem, then we can make the call,” Apffel said.
Officials were walking a fine line, because shutting down the beaches would shut down all the commerce left on the peninsula, Apffel said.
County officials received reports about gatherings on peninsula beaches over the weekend, but Galveston County Judge Mark Henry saw little evidence people were gathering in groups larger than 10, which would run afoul of social distancing guidelines, he said.
“People send pictures and the pictures that they send us don’t even look crowded,” Henry said. “I wasn’t really sure what the point of sending the pictures is.”
The county as of Monday had not enacted any restrictions on renting houses on Bolivar Peninsula, Apffel said. Unlike the city of Galveston, the county doesn’t require short-term rental units to register and doesn’t collect local hotel taxes from them.
“Rentals we can’t speak to because we have no ordinance ability,” Apffel said. “There’s no way for us to control that.”
Henry didn’t see the harm in people on Bolivar Peninsula continuing to rent out their houses, he said. There was little difference between renters going to the area and people who own beach houses on the peninsula using those to self-quarantine, he said.
Opinions among peninsula residents were spilt about what should be done about visitors, said Brenda Flanagan, president of the Bolivar Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.
“It depends on who you ask,” Flanagan said.
The peninsula’s economy, even more than Galveston’s, is tied to visitors spending at local businesses and people renting beach houses. Some locals want rentals to continue and for beaches to remain open, Flanagan said.
Others want to limit as much as possible who’s going to the area, both to limit exposure to the coronavirus and to reduce the strain on local resources, she said.
With Galveston’s beaches closed until at least April 5, Flanagan worried even more people would arrive on the peninsula.
“I really hate it for our businesses, because we depend on the tourists to help us get through,” Flanagan said. “And I hate it for the tourists that enjoy coming down here, but it does put us in a hard place if the tourists keep coming down.”