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Fredericksburg Isn't A COVID-19 Hot Spot, But Its Visitors Come From Places That Are

COVID-19 cases have hit a new peak in Texas as more establishments opened for business. But not all places are feeling the impact equally. 

Fredericksburg is in the heart of the Texas Hill Country. It relies on well-to-do tourists who like to escape from the big cities. The local hospital has 10 ICU beds and four ventilators. About 11,000 people live in the area. 

At the beginning of June — two weeks before increased coronavirus cases were reported across Texas — Fredericksburg’s visitor and convention bureau was open to the public.

Amanda Koone is the bureau’s director of communication. She said the town has moved into the recovery phase — and is doing a soft marketing push out of respect for the local community.

“As far as marketing materials go and pushing messaging, up until this point we've been — we've been silent,” she said. “We just didn't feel like it was an appropriate time to market visitation to Fredericksburg.”

They didn’t need to. Visitation started to pick up by Memorial Day weekend. 

The Gillespie County Airport in Fredericksburg never closed, but two weeks ago, more and more visitors were flying in on tiny prop planes from Houston, Dallas and other major cities.   

Gwen Fullbrook runs a flight school at the airport. She also owns a mortgage company and a bed and breakfast closer to downtown.

Her bed and breakfast saw a wave of cancellations in March. 

“Well, just people started calling and canceling and emailing and canceling, and it was the same way with every place in town,” she said, “and it was just bizarre.” 

She said weekends are still slow at the bed and breakfast, but she did see an uptick over the holiday weekend. 

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Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
Main Street is a hub of tourism in Fredericksburg, with high-end boutique shops and gourmet restaurants for well-to-do visitors.

Lodging may be slow in Fredericksburg, but central Main Street was bustling. Most of the shops and restaurants were open: 

Michelle Sandoval described the scene: “Oh, busy, busy, busy.”

She works at a place called Heirlooms — Needless Necessities. The non-essential store followed statewide orders and shut down in mid-March.  Sandoval said only one of the seven employees returned to work. So she took one of the open jobs. 

The staff does try to keep patrons safe.  

“We sanitize. We keep ourselves clean. We distance ourselves,” she said. 

But the store doesn’t require employees or shoppers to wear masks. Most of the tourists seen walking down Main Street didn’t wear them either — even though a large sign flashed “wear a mask” and “practice social distancing.”  

Most tourists don't wear masks, and social distancing is difficult on the crowded sidewalk.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
Most tourists don't wear masks, and social distancing is difficult on the crowded sidewalk.

Two weeks later, most tourists are still mask-less, including Rose Preston from Denton. She was here for her 33rd wedding anniversary.   

“Oh, I’m not over it, and I feel for people who get it (COVID-19),” she said. “But I just didn't buy into the whole shutting down everything. I think the flu kills more people every year than this has.”

That's not true. The flu kills up to  61,000 people a year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 deaths are reaching double that number.  

Gillespie County is not a COVID-19 hot spot, but visitors could come from areas that are. And that worries local business owners. 

“They can bring it with them,” Randy Pehl said. “That's something everybody's worried about.”  

She runs a peach stand on the far southeast side of town. 

Randy Pehl runs Behrend's Orchard Peaches. She is worried about the health and safety of her staff, most of whom are family, but also about the viability of her business if visitation declines significantly.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
Randy Pehl runs Behrend's Orchard Peaches. She is worried about the health and safety of her staff, most of whom are family, but also about the viability of her business if visitation declines significantly.

Pehl has made a lot of adjustments to keep her staff and patrons safe. They are not required to wear masks, but Pehl has put up plastic partitions and customers aren’t allowed to handle the produce before purchase. Randy Pehl’s parents opened this stand when she was 15. 

“For 52 years, we did it one way,” she said, “Now we're doing it a completely different way.”

Das Peach Haus, another family-owned fruit vendor in Fredericksburg, is taking more precaution.

Employee temperatures are checked as they enter and leave every day, and everyone is required to wear a mask. The store will shut down for two weeks if anyone develops symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19. Das Peach Haus is owned by Fischer & Wieser Specialty Foods. The chairmain, Mark Wieser, says the pandemic reminds him of stories from his mother who survived another global pandemic a century ago.

“I remember her telling me that entire families died within a week, five people all gone,” he said. “And I guess you can go to the cemetery and read the tombstones of families that caught that flu, the Spanish flu and died.

Dietz Fischer and Mark Wieser chat next to a pond behind Das Peach Haus.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
Dietz Fischer and Mark Wieser chat next to a pond behind Das Peach Haus.

“So in some sense, the idea of a pandemic was very real to us, because I knew people who had experienced it here.”

Perhaps the strictest enforcement in Fredericksburg comes from the National Museum of the Pacific War. It’s full of historic artifacts from World War II, including a Japanese submarine captured near Pearl Harbor. 

The museum estimates it lost about $300,000 by shutting down in March.  

“Obviously, we thrive on our visitation here on site,” said Rorie Cartier, the museum’s director.

“Most of our operational budget relies on on-site revenue from admissions,” he said. “And we pull from all over the state, all over Texas, and then all across the country as well.”

All visitors to the National Museum of the Pacific War are required to wear a mask.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
All visitors to the National Museum of the Pacific War are required to wear a mask.

The museum is now open, but reservations are required and limited to small groups, and everyone inside is required to wear a mask. About 300 visitors came every day in peak season before the pandemic. visitation is about a tenth of that now — mostly by design.   

The confirmed COVID case count in Gillespie County is now nine, with five recovered and a cluster of three cases in a nursing home. A county press release about the nursing home outbreak lists six steps to minimize the spread of the disease — wearing a mask is not on the list. 

Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony.

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