By Gaige Davila
Thousands of cars drove to South Padre Island last weekend, after Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order allowing some businesses to reopen at 25 percent capacity, starting Friday, May 1.
On Friday, May 1, 8,977 cars drove to the Island; on Saturday, May 2, 10,866; and on Sunday, May 3, 7,833, according to data provided to the PRESS from South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Ed Caum.
“It is hard to say exactly how many people that equates to,” Caum said. “But the travel industry often uses 2.5 people per car as a baseline.”
By that measure, nearly 70,000 or more people traveled to South Padre Island over the weekend. Caum said most hotels and businesses on the Island were open and were following the State’s guidelines regarding the 25 percent occupancy rule.
Abbott’s order, announced during an April 27 press conference at the Texas Capitol, allowed retail stores, malls, restaurants and movie theaters to reopen at 25 percent capacity.
“It was exciting to see so many of our Island businesses being able to start putting some of their employees back to work,” South Padre Island mayor Patrick McNulty told the PRESS. “Getting some of our Island businesses back on line even at a 25 percent capacity has afforded many of our residents and neighbors the opportunity to provide for their families.”
But the resurgence of visitors to South Padre Island which, as of now, has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, was not without concern.
Port Isabel and South Padre Island residents took to Facebook and social media to post photos of traffic and persons in close contact, fearing more people will contract the novel coronavirus COVID-19. Photos and videos taken over the weekend inside South Padre Island businesses shown to the PRESS show people in close contact, but it is unclear where the videos and photos were filmed exactly.
Residents’ concern here is valid, as Cameron County continues confirming COVID-19 cases daily. During a May 6 press conference, Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr. said the county is seeing an average of 11 cases a day.
Treviño said he’s received reports of businesses not enforcing the 25 percent capacity rule and not following social distancing guidelines. Treviño also mentioned South Padre Island specifically, regarding the large influx of visitors.
“The first weekend that we opened up the beaches, I was pleasantly surprised to see that everyone was adhering to the rules,” Treviño said. “However this past weekend, maybe it was just the cabin fever or what have you, but it was literally spring break at the Island, and people were not, for the most part, utilizing social distancing and many of them did not have facial coverings.”
He continued, “If there’s a belief that this virus has left or vacated our county, that’s a wrong idea to have, and everyone would be sorely mistaken to believe that.”
Gino Puedan, manager of Grapevine Cafe and Coffeehouse, said he understood why people wanted to come to the Island, after several weeks of shelter-in-place orders from Cameron County, which were lifted on May 1. The influx was good for Grapevine, who has opened their dining room and is still providing curbside and delivery service, but some employees are still not able to work, caring for young or elderly relatives.
But Puedan did not welcome one facet of the influx of visitors: the amount of trash left on the beach and on the street.
“It’s just straight nonsense,” Puedan said.“When (the beach) was quarantined, it was all clean and pretty, now they abuse it and don’t even care for our beach, our home and our Island.”
Grapevine is following all of the CDC and State guidelines, Puedan says, sanitizing the restaurant regularly. He has no plans on shutting the restaurant down.
South Padre Island Mayor Patrick McNulty said the City of South Padre Island is addressing the concerns residents and business owners have raised, investigating complaints. McNulty said all guests and citizens are encouraged to follow the Governor’s orders, minimizing in-person contact with people not in the same household. The city is adding additional resources to beach patrol to issue warnings and tickets for violations.
McNulty said the city has been in “constant communication” with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC), the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office.
In Port Isabel, there are 3 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with one person recovered. In Laguna Vista, there is one confirmed case. As of press time, there are 469 COVID-19 cases in Cameron County, with 225 residents recovering from the novel coronavirus. Nineteen people have died.
The majority of Cameron County’s cases are in Brownsville and Harlingen.
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