I should have my toes in the Gulf of Mexico right now. I should be pondering fresh shrimp for dinner instead of the tuna fish sandwich I’m getting ready to make at home in Fort Worth.
As recently as a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I had planned to spend this week at the South Padre Island condo that we co-own with friends. Our ultrawhite winter flesh needed some sun.
Even after the virus took hold, we thought about going—the beach seemed like a great place to hole up—but we didn’t for a number of reasons. For starters: We’d need to stop at gas stations and restaurants along the way. Also: Nobody wants us there.
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All those people from Galveston and South Padre Island who usually love visitors and the money they bring to the local economy? They have yanked the welcome mat. They want us far, far away. South Padre’s official tourism slogan right now is “Stay Home. Stay Safe. Visit Later.” Locals on social media put it more bluntly: “Geez, people, stay home.” “Go away!!!!”
And I get it. We think we’re healthy right now, but are we? We can’t be sure. They can’t be sure, either. They’re terrified we outsiders and city folk are going to bring the virus to their little communities, where there are fewer medical facilities.
It’s not just Texas beaches, of course. Out in Marfa, you aren’t allowed to rent a hotel room, a house, or anything right now unless you’re moving there as a “permanent resident.” (You can check in anytime you want, but you can never leave.) On the Facebook page for the Maine island of Westport, which we love to visit, locals talk about following cars with New York plates to see where they’re going. Don’t even think about driving onto the Florida Keys. There’s a barricade at the Monroe County line, and if you don’t live there, you’re turned around.
So, it’s no surprise that in both Galveston and South Padre, new rentals are banned. If you’re already there, they won’t kick you off the island, but they’re fine with you deciding to drive back across the causeway anytime. Now would be good.
It goes without saying that restaurants are takeout only in both communities, and all tourist attractions are closed.
In Galveston, the beaches are closed. To everyone, including locals. All Texas beaches are under the jurisdiction of the General Land Office and the Texas Open Beaches Act. Local governments can close the beaches for public health reasons, but they can’t pick and choose who can’t go. It has to be everyone. So in Galveston, nobody can be on the beach.
Even though new rentals aren’t allowed, you can go to Galveston if you own property there. Whether you should is another matter.
In South Padre, the city’s beaches are open. Locals will tell you it’s locals only, but that’s not the case. The beaches are either open or closed, and today, they’re open (for exercise; you can’t sunbathe). Tomorrow, who knows?
As in Galveston, if you own property on South Padre—a house or condo, as we do—you legally can go there. I verified this with both Mayor Patrick McNulty and Convention and Visitors Bureau chief Ed Caum because I’d heard differently from so many locals, and I’ve heard a lot of anecdotal reports of police stopping people and turning them around if they don’t have a South Padre drivers license. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, because people aren’t always on the same page. I’m saying there is no official proclamation closing the bridge to anyone but locals.
But nobody un-local is truly welcome right now, and you might be harassed. In fact, you almost surely will be harassed. Late Thursday, South Padre Island set up checkpoints to make sure cars headed for the island have a good reason for being there. Also, late Thursday, Port Isabel, the last town before you cross the bridge, instituted its own set of strict rules, including a ban on more than two people in a vehicle. And it has set up a checkpoint to enforce those rules.
Bottom line, though: Do you want to chance getting sick in a beach community where medical care isn’t as widely available as it probably is where you live? Where there are far fewer respirators? I can tell you from experience that it’s hard to find a doctor in South Padre who takes insurance or Medicare. I did find a clinic across the bridge in Port Isabel a few years ago that took my insurance. But it billed me as an emergency room. I wound up in the ER in nearby Harlingen, once. I specifically asked if it took my insurance. IT did. The doctor did not. I don’t think I ever paid that vast a bill.
But what medical resources they have–two hospitals in Harlingen an hour away, one in Brownsville—they’d really like to reserve for the people who live there.
So we decided not to take our probably-fine-but-possibly-virus-ridden bodies down to the beach where bad stuff could happen. Paleness is the better part of valor. Tuna fish it is. We’ll storm the beaches later, when they love us again.
Helen Anders is a Fort Worth-based freelance writer.