By Gaige Davila
There is an obvious relationship between Cameron County’s COVID-19 cases and Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño’s tone at his press conferences: as the wave rises, so, too, does the urgency of the captain’s voice of this ship we’re all aboard, looking down as the crest refuses to roll back, hoping for a break. The S.S. Cameron County sails on the wave as it gets higher and higher.
And the waves are still coming and going on South Padre Island’s beaches, mindlessly shifting with the moon, as if we were not in a viral pandemic. But how would the waves know?
They don’t know, no shame on the moon, but the City of South Padre Island’s marketing team does, as do its business owners, both of which simultaneously understand COVID-19’s danger yet call for more people to come to its beaches, party boats, bars (now closed due to Texas’ exploding COVID-19 cases) and restaurants.
This looks insensitive on its face, but it is not surprising for anyone who is from, works, lives, and owns businesses here. Rising COVID-19 wave or not, South Padre Island is entirely dependent on its tourism and hospitality industries, and the waves of people who visit in the spring, summer, fall, and winter. One low-paying week in March, South Padre Island’s busiest month of the year, may mean a bartender can’t make rent in the winter, or pay for their children’s school supplies before school starts in August. The hotter months are South Padre Island’s labor force’s time to make and save as much money as possible, knowing it might not be there a few months later.
It’s that same labor force that is most impacted by COVID-19 here: the bartenders, barbacks, bussers, maintenance staff, housekeeping staff, hosts, cooks, and cashiers who interact most with tourists, under whatever personal protective equipment they have or is provided to them. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that those I know personally who’ve contracted COVID-19 here all work in these jobs.
The City of South Padre Island, its businesses, the people that employ them, and the tourists themselves were already at the mercy of the Island’s seasonal waves of people, but they are now at the mercy of the rising COVID-19 wave. As the former wave grows, so does the latter wave.
If the pandemic has shown anything, it is that the Island is incapable of existing, at present, without tourists, even when their current presence risks their existence entirely. And it is risking the rest of the Rio Grande Valley’s existence, too, as more people from across the Valley’s four counties continue visiting the Island, by invitation.
As covered by the PRESS this week, Judge Treviño criticized South Padre Island boat charter service Isla Tours/Captain Murphy’s after a video showing one of their boats, Murphy’s Law, with several people aboard not wearing face masks. When I reached out to South Padre Island’s mayor for comment, he told me he was disappointed with the video’s filming, too, saying the post seemed to support the “irresponsible behavior” seen on the boat this past Saturday night.
The video was posted on Clayton’s Beach Bar & Grill’s Facebook page. On Tuesday, July 21, another video was posted to the beach bar’s Facebook, captioned: “Life is short enjoy everyday (palm tree emoji) if your 80 year old parents want to spend their last day looking at ocean take them, it’s better than looking at the 4 walls in a nursing home (beach emoji).”
The post has since been edited to read “Life is short enjoy everyday (palm tree emoji).” Several people on Facebook and Twitter said the post was insensitive. The video was shared and discussed so widely that “Clayton” started trending on Twitter in Texas shortly after.
Because most of Cameron County’s COVID-19 deaths are happening inside its nursing homes, I agree that the post is insensitive and objectively offensive to the hundreds of people affected by their family members’ passing. Speaking with family members of Doug Atwell, a South Padre Island resident who died from COVID-19 nearly two weeks ago, I’ve heard firsthand how deeply COVID-19 deaths hurt. As Mayor McNulty said, these posts are supporting irresponsible behavior; I say they’re on-brand for the Island’s appetite for more waves, even if this particular post is more brazen.
Isla Tours/Captain Murphy’s operations manager told me they were struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic, much like several businesses here.I understand business owners need to pay the bills, too. And to expect them or people who work for them to have the financial savings, or to prepare for something like a viral, worldwide pandemic, as multi-billion dollar corporations are being provided with federal relief payments, is asinine, yet the sentiment is parroted by residents here. But what Isla Tours/Captain Murphy’s, Clayton’s, the City of South Padre Island and so many Island businesses need to understand, is that regardless of the guidelines given, and how well they are followed, the congregation of people in any form, right now, is a risk to life.
The city has made some effort in preventing the spread of COVID-19, but visitors and locals alike either challenge their validity or don’t follow them at all, much to the frustration of the city’s representatives and the businesses who are following the ordinances and enforcing them. So, what is the solution?
As I said, South Padre Island is in a presently impossible situation, a catch-22 based in the state’s lack of political will and imagination. A statewide or county shelter-in-place order, though proven effective, seems suddenly outside of Governor Greg Abbott’s imagination, as he continues refusing to give local municipalities more emergency management power. South Padre Island’s residents and business owners must demand this from the state, if they have any hope to exist past the COVID-19 pandemic. South Padre Island cannot survive without a living, healthy labor force; the more they are exposed to tourists infected with COVID-19, the more likely they won’t return to work at all.
Simultaneously, Laguna Madre area residents, especially those working in hospitality, should be mobilizing for more federal and state financial help, with enough to cover months of expenses, if needed.
How long this area will endure the waves is unknown, but what is clear is that there are people who have watched the tide rise to our necks and looked away and it is our right to refuse to drown.