Summer began in Galveston Saturday.
Crowds from across Texas flocked to island beaches for the first weekend in more than a month that the sand was open to visitors.
To the casual observer, it might have been a normal summer weekend. But the crowds descended on the island during a time when health officials advise people to continue social distancing to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Restaurants, museums and other businesses reopened their doors – at 25 percent capacity – across the state Friday after Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday announced the first phase to reopen the state’s economy.
Beaches also reopened after local leaders confirmed the governor and Texas General Land Office, which oversees state beaches, ordered them open. Galveston beaches had been closed since March 29 and had just reopened with limited hours on Monday.
Courtney Allison, from San Antonio, was glad the beaches were reopened because she and her children were ready to get out of the house, she said.
Allison sat in a lawn chair at Sunny Beach while her children played in the sand.
Her family takes an annual trip to Galveston and this year wasn’t sure whether they’d be able to make it, Allison said.
“I think we are really ready to get out of the house,” she said.
Allison feels safe on the beach, but the crowds seemed like those of a normal summer, she said.
NOT A TYPICAL SATURDAY
By noon on Saturday, cars trying to turn right on 61st Street from I-45 were backed up to the highway. Traffic heading west on Seawall Boulevard backed up from 81st Street to Central City Boulevard — about 20 blocks — and available parking spaces on the beachfront street were few and far between.
People sat outdoors and ate at Seawall Boulevard restaurants and rented bicycles to ride along the seawall. Visitors from across Texas set up canopies, lit grills and planted their beach chairs in the sand.
None of this was unusual for a May Saturday in Galveston, except that this was not a typical Saturday, with social distancing guidelines still in place.
Last week, Mayor Jim Yarbrough signed an emergency order allowing the city to fine people $500 for violating Abbott’s social distancing guidelines.
The Strand, Galveston’s popular shopping district, wasn’t absent of people, but it fell short of normal summer crowds.
John and Colleen Herman sat on The Strand Saturday watching people walk by. The couple have a home on Galveston’s East End they’ve been spending weekends in. There were more people downtown Saturday than there have been in a while but still not as many as normal for this time of year, John Herman said.
“I think we’re way down,” Herman said.
But the beaches were full.
Keith Mildy visited Sunny Beach from Pasadena just to get out of the house, he said. Mildy felt like people were social distancing on the beach and, as long as coronavirus cases don’t surge, he’ll keep going to the beach this summer, he said.
“As long as it stays like this, we’ll keep coming down,” Mildy said.
But for some, it still seems too early for people to be crowding beaches.
Anna Lopez sold ice cream to Sunny Beach tourists out of her ice cream truck. The crowds seemed about on par with summer levels, she said.
Lopez thinks it’s still too dangerous for older people to venture out, she said. She feels safe staying in her truck and wearing a mask, she said.
Anthony and Jessica Vallejo, from Lufkin, traveled to Galveston for the weekend on an impromptu trip because they’ve been stuck at home for weeks, they said.
They are still doing their best to practice social distancing, Anthony Vallejo said.
“Everybody else,” Vallejo said, gesturing to the crowds covering the beaches at 34th Street, “I don’t know.”