Land Office orders Texas beaches to open by Friday

The Texas General Land Office has ordered all of the state’s public beaches to reopen as part of the governor’s phased reopening of the state’s economy.

The city of Galveston announced the land office’s decision in a news release Wednesday, noting the agency’s guidance “rescinding its approval for local governments to close beaches due to COVID-19.” Effective Friday at 12 a.m. all of Texas’s public beaches will be open to the public.

The basis for the land office’s green light to open beaches was Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order encouraging outdoor activities “so long as necessary precautions are maintained” to minimize transmission of the virus and in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.

Abbott announced Monday the first phase of the state’s plan to strategically open the state’s economy after the stay-at-home order he issued expires on Thursday. Beginning Friday, all retail stores, dine-in restaurants, and movie theaters are allowed to reopen with limited capacity. The state continues to recommend that individuals follow federal guidance of maintaining at least 6 feet distance from other people not in the same household.

However, Abbott’s report on reopening the state omitted beaches, which left local governments awaiting a decision from the land office as to whether they have jurisdiction over access to the coastline.

Regionally, cities and counties have been split on granting beach access during the coronavirus pandemic.

The city of Galveston closed its beaches on March 29, but began a partial reopening on Monday for pedestrians who wanted morning exercise from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. Galveston County kept beaches on Bolivar Peninsula open, save for a four day closure over Easter weekend. The city of Jamaica Beach on Galveston island also kept its beaches open to the public. Elsewhere, Brazoria County kept its beaches open to pedestrians but restricted all vehicle access.

While information about the nature of the coronavirus continues to evolve, some scientists believe that beaches are not necessarily havens from potential infection. A leading atmospheric chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography told the Los Angeles Times that the virus could be light enough to float through the air much farther than we think and that stiff coastal winds could carry viral particles.

Galveston locals have been eager for their beaches to reopen, with some complaining that keeping them closed would increase crowds adjacent to the beach, such as on Seawall Boulevard, one of the island’s main thoroughfares.

Peter Davis, the chief of Galveston’s beach patrol, said during the three and a half weeks that the island’s beaches were closed they would sweep, on average, 160 people off the beach during the week, and up to 240 on the weekend. But on Saturday and Sunday combined, his patrol officers moved just under 3,500 people away from the beach, including 2,500 on Sunday alone.

Davis acknowledged on Monday the possibility that the governor could supersede the city’s partial reopening.

“We wouldn’t be able to do this controlled measure, gradual loosening approach like our emergency management wants to do here,” Davis said.

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