The city council during a virtual meeting Friday discussed establishing a checkpoint at the causeway to keep tourists off the island as leaders searched for ways to ease restrictions such as closing beaches, golf courses and fishing piers to residents stuck at home in effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.
The city council also extended orders to close the beaches, among other restrictions, to April 30. And city leaders warned that a local virus infection peak likely won’t come until early May.
Discussions about a checkpoint at the causeway arose largely because of Sunday’s closure of the beaches. Many residents have been upset they can’t use the beaches, which is normally a protected right for all Texans.
City leaders were reluctant to close the beaches, but Sunday it became apparent the move was necessary because large numbers of tourists still were arriving to use them, Mayor Jim Yarbrough said.
The city planned to loosen the restrictions at some point but not yet, as health officials were advising that the peak of COVID-19 infections in Texas is still a month away, Yarbrough said.
“We’re in a four-quarter game and we’re just in the first quarter,” Yarbrough said.
The city’s regulations are in line with orders Gov. Greg Abbott issued this week that extended social distancing recommendations and bar and restaurant restrictions until April 30.
If people can follow social distancing guidelines now, there is a better chance that Galveston could have a summer season, City Manager Brian Maxwell said.
Galveston’s $1.2 billion tourism industry relies heavily on summer visitors, and losing all summer tourism would devastate many businesses, he said.
“Let’s sacrifice April and May and let’s make some personal sacrifices, so we can at least have some businesses back this summer,” Maxwell said.
The city council received a record 164 public comments during the meeting. Those were submitted ahead of time electronically because of social distancing rules restricting the public’s access to the meeting.
Of those comments, 117 were in favor of opening beaches and another six were in favor of keeping the beaches closed, according to the city.
Some council members wanted the city to explore putting a checkpoint at the causeway to filter out visitors or people who weren’t coming to Galveston for essential purposes.
If the city could manage tourists at the entry points, the residents might be afforded a little more freedom, District 1 Councilwoman Amy Bly said.
The city was investigating how it would go about putting a checkpoint at the causeway, Maxwell said.
But there are staffing issues associated with checkpoints, and it would create another place where first responders might come into contact with an infected person, Maxwell said.
It also would be difficult to enforce, he said.
“There would probably be some degree of an honor system with this,” Maxwell said.
The causeway ultimately is run by the state, and the city would have to get the Texas Department of Transportation’s approval to put up a checkpoint, officials said.
The Galveston-Port Bolivar ferry system also is run by the state, and Galveston County runs the San Luis Pass.
Restrictions on businesses, which have been especially hard hits for the entertainment and hospitality industries, have been a serious blow to the island’s economy and the city should already be planning for reopening part of the economy, District 4 Councilman Jason Hardcastle said.
“People are eventually going to start becoming desperate,” Hardcastle said, adding that the city must find a way to balance public health and economic health.
Yarbrough’s focus has been on public health, the mayor said.
“I realize there’s been an economic calamity around us,” Yarbrough said. “Until we get to the peak, my focus is going to be on the public health portion.”
The city also extended restrictions on golf courses, hotels and short-term rentals.
The city council plans to meet weekly to reassess the closure orders.