Galveston’s plan to limit crowds on the Fourth of July worked.
But after a weekend of keeping the crowds away, island leaders still were trying to assess what the cost of the pandemic closure was and what the path forward for the rest of the summer will be to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“Everybody understands and respects the call as far as corona and the danger,” said Gina Spagnola, the president of the Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce. “But honestly, it was terrible for business. It was devastating.”
On Wednesday, the city of Galveston, Galveston County and the city of Jamaica Beach announced their beaches would be closed or limited through the Fourth of July holiday.
Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough announced the closures as part of an effort to limit the number of people traveling to the island to prevent large crowds that could potentially spread the coronavirus.
“To me, the closures were trying to keep Galveston’s weekend population during this spike in cases down,” Yarbrough said. “And it kept our population down.”
“I get questions all the time about why Moody Gardens or the Pleasure Pier are open but I shut the beaches down,” he said. “Moody Gardens and the Pleasure Pier don’t draw people. The beaches draw people, so it was a good governor for what we wanted to do. It lowered the population, so we feel like it was a success, even though we know it was a painful pill.”
The county followed with a similar order, which Galveston County Judge Mark Henry and Galveston County Local Health Authority Philip Keiser said was necessary because the island’s closure could push hundreds of thousands of people to open beaches on Bolivar Peninsula.
To the extent that the orders were meant to keep crowds away, the closures worked. The number of people on the island was noticeably low, and businesses reported light crowds.
Although restaurants, stores and other attractions on the island were open for business, parking lots and dining rooms were sparsely filled.
At noon on Saturday, Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant, the venerable 109-year-old restaurant on Seawall Boulevard, posted a picture of its lifeless kitchen. On what would normally be the busiest day of the year, there were no orders to fill.
The closure also sparked a string of cancellations at hotels that covered not only the holiday weekend but through the rest of the summer, Spagnola said.
The shutdown’s effect was visible in the number of people counted driving onto the island.
About 27,000 vehicles crossed the Galveston Causeway on to the island Saturday, according to the city. The number was low, even for a typical summer day, never mind a holiday.
On July 1, a more-or-less typical Wednesday, about 37,500 cars crossed the causeway onto the island.
On July 4, 2019, the city reported about 48,500 cars driving onto the island. In 2018, a year when torrential rains canceled the island’s fireworks show, the car count coming onto the island was about 28,000.
The Galveston-Port Bolivar Ferry was similarly slow over the weekend. The ferry reported short wait times. In a normal year, waits at the ferry on a summer weekend can last two hours or more.
ON THE BEACH
Some people tested the limits of the beach closures.
A small group of protestors demonstrated against the closures Saturday afternoon on the seawall at 39th Street. Some of the protestors took their demonstration out on to the beach. Two people were given $500 tickets by the Galveston Police Department for violating the order.
On Bolivar Peninsula, where people were allowed to be on the beach during limited hours, some people challenged deputies who asked them to leave or who drove their vehicles on the beach, Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochesset said.
“There were some people who were resistant to the order and just would tell us, ‘Write me a ticket, I’m not leaving,’” Trochesset said. “There were some people that would park cars, and if they weren’t going anywhere, we would let it go.”
Trochesset didn’t know how many tickets deputies wrote for people violating the county’s orders.
Independence Day normally is the peak of the summer travel season, and the outlook for more mass closures is unclear. Beaches across the county were back to being fully open and unrestricted on Monday morning.
In the city of Galveston, officials said they planned to announce new, more-limited beach closures as soon as Wednesday.
Galveston could create no-parking areas, capacity restrictions at some West End access points and closure of vehicular traffic on the beach, Yarbrough said.
The city might also restrict some areas at the ends of the seawall or at the San Luis Pass that have attracted large crowds since beaches reopened May 1, he said.
The city knows enough about the summer crowds now to manage them, Yarbrough said.
“We have enough history now,” Yarbrough said.
Henry didn’t anticipate making any similar closures on Bolivar Peninsula but left open the possibility that restrictions on the peninsula could return — based on what the city of Galveston does going forward.
“We only had to do this because Galveston made this last-second call and put us in this tough spot,” Henry said.
Labor Day, the unofficial end of the summer tourism season, is 62 days away.