For the past three years, Jeffery Jasper has escaped the brutal winters of his home in Minneapolis for the tall palms and sunny skies of South Texas. In early October, after considering the risks of contracting COVID-19, the 76-year-old decided he’d rather be “warm and worried than cold and worried” and drove 1,500 miles to the Rio Grande Valley in his 37-foot-long Newmar RV. During the five-day journey, he tried to limit exposure to anyone else, cooking meals in the vehicle’s full kitchen and stepping outside only to fill up at the pump—always while wearing a pair of gloves. But now that he’s arrived at his luxury RV park in Mission, fifteen minutes west of McAllen, he’s socializing. On Thanksgiving, he delivered meals to park residents in voluntary quarantine and played socially distanced bingo in the camp’s clubhouse while wearing a mask. The day after, he pruned the orange trees on his rental lot and adorned them with Christmas lights. He welcomed the opportunity to interact with others. Back in Minnesota, his children and their families saw him only at infrequent outdoor gatherings—“nobody wants to give Grandpa the pandemic”—and his single life had grown lonely. “Thanksgiving was better than it would’ve been at home,” he said.
Jasper is one of an estimated 50,000 “Winter Texans” who have traveled, or will, to the Rio Grande Valley this year for its warmer weather. (The number is lower than in previous years: more than 100,000 typically flock to the region, according to a University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley study.) The vast majority come from the Midwest, many from states where COVID-19 cases are surging at an even higher rate than in most Texas counties. For the Valley’s restaurateurs, shop owners, and RV park staff, business from Winter Texans is crucial to stay afloat. But local public health experts warn that the imminent arrival of thousands of high-risk individuals spells trouble for a hospital system that’s been stretched to its limits by the pandemic in a region where the COVID death rate is much higher than in other parts of the state.
Although he said the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Hidalgo County (currently more than two hundred) is not yet a cause for panic, Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County’s health authority, fears the presence of Winter Texans might contribute to a return of conditions like those he worked through this summer, when hospitals reached capacity and patients waited ten hours to be delivered to emergency rooms by ambulance. Even in non-pandemic times, Melendez said, demand for hospital beds in the region typically doubles during the winter flu season, in part because of the greater need for health care among the travelers, whose average age is 72. And it’s not just their age, which makes them far more susceptible to experiencing severe illness as a result of COVID-19, that worries Melendez. Winter Texans also typically engage in a high level of social interaction—frequently darting between happy hours, eating group meals in large dining halls, and congregating for karaoke and card games—that facilitates the spread of the coronavirus. “They’re out in the pool, playing shuffleboard, and having dances,” Melendez said, adding that Winter Texans are “hornier than hell.”
COVID has calmed the camps some, but there’s still plenty of socializing. Jasper said that almost every evening, he meets with a group of friends in the lighted area outside one of their RVs to play Euchre or Hand and Foot, but they give each other more space than usual and wear masks. They still bring food to share but use different serving spoons and gloves. While he’s not doing so as much as in prior years, Jasper occasionally ventures off park grounds for an outdoor meal at one of the region’s plentiful restaurants.
Meanwhile, business owners in the Valley remain hopeful that Winter Texans will provide a boost to the economy, which has been hit hard by the pandemic: regional unemployment spiked from 7 percent pre-pandemic to nearly 18 percent in April and remains relatively high, at around 12 percent. “This year has been a very tough year,” said Becky Guerra, owner of the Patio on Guerra, an upscale restaurant in McAllen. “Their dollars [Winter Texans] bring to the Valley are especially important.” According to the UT-RGV study, seasonal residents contribute about $760 million to the region’s economy each year. Restaurants and retail shops, both in hubs such as McAllen and in smaller communities including San Juan, Pharr, and Weslaco, typically benefit.
Kristi Collier, founder of Welcome Home Rio Grande Valley, which runs a newspaper for Winter Texans and a membership program for the businesses they patronize, said this year’s travelers will arrive later than in a typical October-to-March season, with most waiting until after the holidays to start heading south. That, along with the fact that only half the usual number are expected, will almost certainly reduce the travelers’ economic impact. Still, Robert Lopez, vice president of Visit McAllen, the tourism division of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, said local business owners will still use the help of a cash influx to create jobs.
For local leaders, their arrival has created a difficult problem. Lopez said there’s little that can be done to stop the Winter Texans from coming or even keep them contained within the RV parks where most of them spend the season. Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez told me he welcomes all visitors but said economic concerns should come second to public health. “The moment we have a crisis, then goodbye, industry,” he said. “Who’s going to want to go to a toxic environment?”
It’s unclear whether Texas county judges have the power to declare a shutdown, but Cortez is not considering such an action to prevent Winter Texans from coming. To better prepare for their arrival, he participated in calls coordinated by Collier between local leaders and management at many of the three hundred RV parks between South Padre Island to Palm View. In addition to emphasizing industry protocols and CDC guidelines, Visit McAllen is trying to encourage accountability through its McAllen Staysafe Commitment, a pledge by member businesses to provide safety measures, including hand sanitizer and contactless payment. But, as in most of Texas, the task of managing the pandemic has been left to business owners and individuals.
Collier said parks are not requiring negative COVID-19 test results from residents before they arrive, nor had she heard of any discussion to organize on-site testing. Instead, she says the Zoom calls she has organized over the past months are centered on reimagining the events that draw northerners to the parks. In Texas, as opposed to other retirement destinations including Arizona and Florida, Collier explained, visitors typically can book a reservation at a smaller park and still have access to the amenities at more expensive resorts, where almost all events are open to the public. Although that practice has not been banned this year, she said, she’s promoting alternative, smaller events. To keep Winter Texans busy and safe, Collier said park managers have talked about how to keep decks of cards clean and are implementing socially distant opportunities including golf cart parades and happy hours. At one popular nudist park in Edcouch, outside McAllen, residents will now be required to wear masks in common areas where social distancing is not possible. Randy Berman, a spokesperson for Equity LifeStyle Properties, which represents several of the RGV’s largest RV parks, said new offerings this year include roving food trucks in place of dining hall meals, live music playing from the backs of trailers instead of dance halls, and outdoor theaters.
But some Winter Texans aren’t fearful of the virus, its possible effect on their health, or of spreading it to others. Bonnie DeMoss, age 66, and her husband are traveling to the Rio Grande Valley from their home in Newton, Kansas, for their first winter and plan to arrive after Christmas. Although she said they take precautions, including wearing masks and social distancing, DeMoss told me that there’s “not much that we don’t do. We don’t have the fear that a lot of our friends and family do.”
But even for more cautious folk, there is a chance of exposure. Jasper said he’ll continue partaking in events throughout the winter, but he knows the risks he’s taking. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, I made a mistake, and I won’t do it next time.’ There is no next time if you get a bad case.”