Galveston leaders already faced a complex question: how to slowly partially reopen island beaches without inviting crowds that would undermine efforts to manage the spread of coronavirus and tax local public health and safety.
That proposition might have become considerably more complicated Wednesday after Gov. Greg Abbott said Texas beaches would reopen.
Galveston’s City Council is scheduled today to discuss ways to ease into reopening the beaches, a component of a draft plan about relaxing restrictions on restaurants, bars and other businesses.
The draft proposes opening beaches between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays to give people the opportunity to exercise, swim, fish or surf, according to the draft. No one would be allowed to sit or lounge on the beach.
The city might consider opening beaches just on weekday mornings at first and waiting two weeks to assess the crowds, before opening weekday evenings, City Manager Brian Maxwell said.
“We can always adjust,” Maxwell said.
City leaders might be able to have the beaches mostly reopened by June, Maxwell said.
Reopening slowly is key to ensuring Harris County residents don’t flock to beaches, Mayor Jim Yarbrough said.
Once beaches reopen, people with cabin fever from around the region are likely to head this way, Yarbrough said.
The main reason for closing the beaches is to protect first-responders, Maxwell said.
“That is our single largest biggest concern — the safety of our first responders,” Maxwell said. “We need them.”
Maxwell wants to reduce points of contact for first-responders to prevent them from getting sick and being unable to respond to residents’ needs, he said.
“People think we closed the beaches because we’re worried about the virus spreading on the beaches,” Maxwell said. “That has absolutely nothing to do with it.”
Out of any coronavirus-related topic, the beaches have garnered the most calls and emails Yarbrough has been getting from residents, he said.
“Everybody wants the beaches open to some capacity,” Yarbrough said.
COMPLICATIONS FROM ABOVE
City efforts to create a slow approach to reopening beaches might have been complicated Wednesday when Abbott commented that beaches can definitely reopen.
Abbott made the comment on Fort Worth-based talk radio WBAP.
“Beaches will definitely be open,” Abbott said.
Abbott’s comment was significant because local plans for a phased reopening of the economy hinge on announcements the governor is expected to make Monday.
In the radio interview, Abbott said people would have to follow social distancing practices on the states beaches.
“You can’t have 45 or 450 people gathering together, partying around because that could cause all kinds of problems,” Abbott said.
In question, however, is whether local governments such as Galveston would be able to restrict the times beaches, which belong to the state, could be open.
Yarbrough wanted more information from the governor’s office before commenting on Abbott’s remarks, he said.
Abbott’s office did not respond for clarification by deadline.
Enforcing any beach rules will be tough, Maxwell said.
The city likely would reopen only some of the seawall stairwells to give Galveston Island Beach Patrol and first responders better control of the crowds, Maxwell said.
Since the city closed beaches March 29, the beach patrol has had to tell more than 4,000 people to leave the beach, Chief Peter Davis said.
Most of those appear not to have been casual visitors, however, Davis said.
“About 75 percent of them are local or people with second homes on the beach,” Davis said.
With the beaches under restricted hours, beach patrol will have to patrol the sand every day to remove people after the open hours end, Davis said.
Normally, beach patrol would have seasonal tower guards working during the summer, but with help from the Galveston Police Department, beach patrol at this point can handle partial opening with the 12 full-time staff working, Davis said.
But once beaches fully reopen, beach patrol will need seasonal employees, and recruiting and training can take a minimum of three weeks, Davis said.
BEACH BUDGET WOES
Beach patrol, which relies entirely on revenue from hotel occupancy taxes, is facing severe budget cuts, Davis said.
During a Galveston Park Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday, Davis proposed cutting $988,800 from the patrol’s $3.16 million in expenses budgeted for 2020, about 31 percent, according to park board records.
Those cuts would mean eliminating patrols on the West End and at San Luis Pass, removing guard towers from Babe’s Beach, staffing only one tower at Stewart and East beaches and only on weekends, eliminating staffing of some seawall towers on the weekends and cutting two full-time staff members, according to park board records.
Beach patrol has asked to use $330,000 in reserve money. If it were allowed to, it would need only to cut West End patrols and reduce coverage of Babe’s Beach by 30 percent, according to the records. The board will meet Tuesday to vote on a new budget.
As restrictions lift across the city, enforcement likely will get tougher, Maxwell said.
As of April 17, Galveston Municipal Court had received six citations from police related to people being on the beach — three for driving on the beach and three for walking on the beach, according to the Galveston Police Department.
People walking on beaches outside the specified hours should expect to be fined, Maxwell said.