A steady stream of cars, trucks and golf carts drove along the sand of Port Aransas’ beaches on Saturday morning. Along the water, beachgoers set up canopies and chairs.
After Gov. Greg Abbott’s stay-at-home order expired last week, many stir-crazy Texans flocked to the popular Gulf Coast tourist destination. While the beaches were packed, visitors and locals had mixed feelings about the city’s tourism industry rebooting as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
Jason Arredondo and his family were taking a day trip from San Antonio.
“I figure with some restrictions getting lifted it’s pretty safe, probably… I don’t think (the governor) would lift some of the restrictions if it was still as bad as everyone thought it was at the beginning,” Arredondo said.
After weeks in quarantine, Arredondo says they all welcomed this chance to get out of the house. It was early and most people were spread apart.
By 2 p.m. farther down the beach, there was barely any space between cars, canopies and people. Beth Logue came with a group of friends, visiting from College Station.
“It is probably a little bit too crowded and people should still be keeping distance from those that they haven’t been in their houses, but as long as people are like following protocol, and standards and kind of trying to stay away from people it shouldn’t be a big issue — as long as you’re washing your hands and following safety protocol,” she said.
By around 2:00, the crowds at Port Aransas’ beaches had greatly increased.
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Port Aransas Mayor Charles Bujan, had previously enacted public health orders that restricted a lot of the island’s activity, but he rescinded those after the governor’s orders last week. Still, Bujan said he thinks it’s a bit too early to open it up.
“But understand this… with our small police force, we had no way of controlling the masses of people coming over here,” he said.
The mayor says COVID-19 isn’t over. TPR talked to him by phone because Bujan is social distancing.
“It’s here to stay a while so those who are at risk like myself for example — I had two heart surgeries and a cancer operation in the last 10 months — it’s best for those folks and for me to stay inside the house,” he said.
Port Aransas has less than 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19 right now. Mayor Bujan says he believes Nueces County — which includes Port Aransas and Corpus Christi — will see a spike now that Texas has loosened restrictions. Statewide, Texas has surpassed 30,000 cases.
That’s partly why Shannon Solimine said she’s worried about the influx of visitors.
“I can’t go to our gas station without feeling like people are not going to take precaution, instead of trusting that they will,” she said.
Solimine’s lived here for 12 years and is an incoming city councilwoman.
“I think that’s where we have an issue or where the line kind of gets drawn. I know that our stores are doing the best that they can, but when you’ve got 20 or 30 people coming in at one time and no one is social distancing you’re going to have a problem,” she said.
Over the weekend, most of the island’s retail stores reopened — restaurants, too. Per the governor's orders, all are limited to 25% occupancy.
A sign near one of the busiest intersections of Port Aransas says “We’re Back Baby.” and the beaches. It looks almost like a summer holiday as vehicles and golf carts zoom between newly reopened stores like Island Sports.
Wendy Clark and her family own several retail stores in Port Aransas.
“My family owns The Islander, and Island Sports – the store we’re in now, and also Beach Mart,” she said.
The shops have been family businesses since the 1970s. There are a handful of people in Island Sports browsing beach gear like swimsuits, goggles, and marine themed accessories. She’s working by herself and almost didn’t open.
“One of the reasons why we originally weren’t going to open this weekend is because two of my managers have small children and they don’t have daycare right now,” Clark said.
She says business has been steady since reopening on Friday, but during the closure Clark had to make some tough decisions like furloughing her employees.
She helped them apply for unemployment and she applied for Loans from the Small Business Administration to help with payroll, and received it.
On Saturday evening, cooks at Shells prepped for their second day doing table service for up to nine people. Herber Stone owns the restaurant.
“It scares me a little bit but it almost excites me too because I know I have an opportunity to pay it forward and opportunity to show everybody what this little restaurant can do,” Stone said.
Port Aransas’ economy is based 100% on tourism according to the mayor and Chamber of Commerce officials. While stay-at-home orders were in effect, the restaurant was doing to-go orders, but Stone still had to lay off or furlough employees. He says, in a way, Hurricane Harvey tearing apart the island in 2017 prepared him for this.
“It’s just, I got used to things I never thought I could, and when this little hit came along, I was like ‘Well, here goes another one.’ But I know that we’ll get through it — and we do,” he said.
Keith McMullen The interim CEO of the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce says Port A was a ghost town until this weekend.
“People heeded the call to stay home and we did not have visitors here in town while we were shutdown until just the last week or so,” he said.
With many visitors to Port A being Texas residents, McMullen says the island has an advantage that people don’t have to fly to get there as the airline industry sees fewer travelers.
“We’ve always been a drive in a destination – basically you get in your car to come to port Aransas, few people fly here through Corpus,” McMullen said.
He estimates about two-thirds of the retail businesses reopened this weekend.
“These are family owned restaurants, these are family owned boutique stores, we’re not full of franchise businesses in this town and that’s part of our charm, but these are real families that are hurting,” he said.
COVID-19 is a new reality – and small communities like Port Aransas are trying to figure out their own solutions to combat the virus.
“People know us as the casual, easy go lucky beach town, but we’re taking measures to protect ourselves and our employees,” he said.
Even if employees and residents take precautions, any success in preventing spread among the thousands of visitors who may come this summer will depend on the actions of the visitors themselves.
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