A small group of protesters Saturday took complaints about COVID-19-related closures to the beach.
Advertised as a "Beach Lives Matter" protest following the announcement Galveston would close its beaches for the Independence Day holiday weekend, the gathering featured some chanting, some yelling, and two people receiving tickets after they ventured out into the Gulf of Mexico, violating the city's closure rules.
"I just feel like they've gone too far with taking away our rights and freedoms over a virus that has a very, very high recovery rate," said Kelly Porter, a Galveston resident who was one of the first people to show up at the protest location and one of the people to ultimately be ticketed. "Our freedoms are slipping away more and more each day."
The protest did not have a central organizer. A Facebook event that advertised an all-day protest at multiple spots on the seawall claimed that as many as 1,100 people were planning to show up.
At 10 a.m., the event's advertised start time, just four people stood protesting at the seawall at 39th Street. Over the next two hours, the protest would grow to about 20 people.
Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough on Wednesday announced Galveston beaches would be completely closed during the Fourth of July weekend and that parking would be prohibited on Seawall Boulevard. The closure is an effort to drastically reduce the number of people visiting Galveston, which can draw tens of thousands on holiday weekends.
The closures appear to have worked. Traffic on Seawall Boulevard was light Saturday. There was no wait at the Galveston-Port Bolivar Ferry, and restaurant parking lots were empty.
Some of the protesters claimed Yarbrough's order violated the Texas Open Beaches Act, a state law that guarantees public access to beaches. City officials say the beach closures were approved by the Texas General Land Office, which enforces the open beaches act — and previously prevented the city from closing beaches or beach access points.
About an hour into the event, a group of protesters crossed the barricade and waded into the water. A group of Galveston Police Department officers arrived and warned the people on the beach that they would be ticketed, possibly arrested, if they did not leave.
The protesters returned to the seawall, but a short while later, Porter and six others returned to the sand.
At least two people received $500 tickets for violating the city's beach order. No one was arrested.
Police officers also urged people who stayed on the seawall to keep moving or to move to a city park farther down the street to avoid violating the city's rule that prohibited people from sitting or gathering on the seawall.
Many of the protesters said they didn't understand the order and said the beach should be considered a safe and healthy place to visit during the coronavirus pandemic.
Most of the protesters didn't wear masks. Some said they didn't believe coronavirus precautions recommended by public health officials were necessary.
"It's my right to speak my mind and my right to be on that beach," said Galveston resident Mark McQuade. "I think the mayor is a coward. They're all afraid of this COVID-19 thing. There's no mask that's going to help you do anything. It's government overreach."
McQuade had a balaclava-type face mask wrapped around his neck and head, said he was wearing it to protect against the sun, not the virus. He said he takes his mask off after walking into local stores.
Others lamented the cost the beach closure would have on local businesses.
Yarbrough's order does not explicitly close businesses, but the beach closure unquestionably decreased the number of people visiting island restaurants Saturday.
"I'm here out of the goodness of my heart and for these tourists and what they're losing here," said Angelia Gay, a League City resident. "The business owners, they're hemorrhaging money. I've never seen parking lots so empty on the Fourth of July. People are hemorrhaging money here for an ideology that I'm not even sure we have the science to back up."
Gay agreed that if the beaches were open, Galveston would be "booming." Still even with light crowds, Gay said she planned to go back home for lunch.
"Going into businesses is way riskier than going to the beach," she said. "Don't go to the restaurants unless you're picking up something inside. I'm not an advocate for going in these buildings and spreading COVID. I'm an advocate for being able to go to your beaches."