For good or ill, Galveston’s beaches, along with those in the rest of Texas, reopened just before midnight after Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday revised the state’s stance about which level of government could make that call.
Early in the COVID-19 crisis, the Texas General Land Office, which has considerable regulatory authority over the state’s public beaches, had allowed cities and counties to decide for themselves whether to close beaches in their jurisdictions.
Most did, with the local exceptions of Galveston County, which left beaches under its control on Bolivar Peninsula open, and Jamaica Beach, which left its beach open to pedestrians, but banned vehicles.
Abbott on Wednesday instructed the land office to rescind the authority it had ceded to locals and informed county and city leaders the beaches would reopen.
In doing so, he removed from Galveston’s city council the burden of deciding whether to open the beaches at once or attempt opening them in phases over a longer span of time.
The council seemed to be about evenly spilt about which of those decisions would be best.
It is so because there are valid arguments for opening the beaches gradually in phases and for opening them now.
The rationale for closing beaches in the first place was to discourage people from visiting Galveston, burdening police and emergency medical services and to avoid unnecessarily exposing people here, including service industry workers, to a coronavirus imported from elsewhere.
Those all were valid reasons.
The trouble, as proponents of opening the beaches have argued, is that a lot of people came to Galveston last weekend despite the beaches being closed. They congregated along the seawall, drove all over the island; they were in the grocery stores.
They also went onto the beaches, requiring city workers and members of the Beach Patrol to interact with them for no reason except to enforce the beach closure order.
It’s not unreasonable, then, to ask whether it wouldn’t be better to just open the beaches and be done with the whole controversy. That at least would give people room to spread out.
There are plenty of downsides to opening the beaches, not the least of which is forcing tourist venues such as restaurants to attempt enforcing capacity limits and social-distancing rules in the face of large, demanding crowds.
If, however, closing the beaches is not discouraging visitors, there’s little reason to continue.
Abbott’s decision, which likely is the same decision the city would have made Thursday, comes with risk and consequence.
That’s true with every decision the government has made and will make in response to the pandemic. Imposing restrictions on civic and commercial life has harmed people; relaxing those will too.
Residents worried about an influx of coronavirus-infected visitors should avoid the beaches and stay at home as much as possible.
Everybody should abide by the social distancing rules by staying 6 feet from people not among those they reside with.
• Michael A. Smith