Whether or not anyone is ready for it, summer is coming. And for Galveston Island, the arrival of summer means figuring out how to welcome thousands of tourists in the midst of a pandemic.
It’s a particularly fraught question for restaurant owners, who are gearing up for Memorial Day weekend, traditionally one of the busiest weekends on the Island. Following Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s order initiating “phase two” of his Open Texas plan, which allows bars to open their doors for the first time since March and restaurants to expand their dining room capacities to 50 percent occupancy on May 22, business owners on the island are bracing for one of the busiest Memorial Day weekends in years.
According to Nick Gaido, the owner of Galveston’s iconic Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant, this May brought some of the biggest crowds the lifelong resident has seen on the island. Especially the first weekend of this month, when beaches reopened to the public after being closed for weeks. “It was like Fourth of July weekend,” he said of reopening weekend. “I’d pull up my phone’s maps application and the whole Seawall was just a red line — just stop-and-go traffic.”
Those crowds have left Galveston residents and restaurant owners to contend with tourists, many of whom are driving to the island from Houston, looking for an escape after being stuck inside for the past few months due to “stay home, work safe” order issued by Harris County judge Lina Hidalgo. “A lot of local residents were very upset that these Houston folks were coming down because the beaches were open. But the truth of the matter is that the weekend before May 1 was a beautiful weekend,” Gaido says. “And restaurants could only do to-go food, and the beaches weren’t open. So the Seawall was packed with people.”
The crowds created a serious problem for restaurants struggling to contend with capacity limits and social distancing guidelines. “We had people parking in our parking lot eating their to-go food, and we were doing everything we could to push people away,” Gaido says. “So they’d park their car across the street and lay a blanket out on the Seawall sidewalk and make a picnic. That was a sight to see, even with all these businesses being closed.”
Gaido’s, which has more than a hundred years of experience on the island, is in a unique position to make it through. Throughout the decades, this restaurant has bounced back from a literal plague and catastrophic hurricanes in the 109 years that it has been open.
Still, Gaido’s is struggling. Even with opening its dining rooms at 25 percent capacity during Phase One and bigger takeout sales, the restaurant is only doing about 20 percent — on a good day — of its normal revenue. Gaido recognizes that many restaurants have it much worse off. “A lot of restaurant owners were upset about the 25 percent capacity limits,” he said. “I can’t speak for that because fortunately we’re in a situation where we have a large property — We’re not a 50-seat restaurant.”
Even though the crowds have continued to grow, there may still not be enough tourists for many Galveston businesses to weather the pandemic after months of little or no revenue. Restaurants, bars, and other establishments have already missed out on revenue from spring breakers and Mother’s Day tourists. The months ahead are crucial considering that most restaurants and tourist attractions, including hotels and bars, make the bulk of their annual revenue in June, July, and August.
Business has been steadily increasing on Galveston Island since the devastation wrought in 2008 by Hurricane Ike, which caused almost $30 billion dollars of damage before it moved back into the Gulf. First came the Pleasure Pier, and with it a whole new generation of tourists. Then craft cocktail bars and microbreweries started popping up near the Island’s historic Strand district. Gaido is worried that COVID-19 will bring all that growth to a screeching halt.
“It’s the level of uncertainty. With a hurricane, it’s on a path and it’s going to come through and it’s going to devastate but then it’s gone within a few days and you immediately start the rebuilding process,” he said. “With this pandemic, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Is there gonna be a second wave? What’s gonna happen in the fall when kids go back to school? What’s going to happen this week? We don’t know. The effects of this, we’re living in it real time. This could be something we have to live with for years to come.”
That uncertainty, he said, is what led him to believe it was time to start reopening the economy. Because tourism is the lifeblood of Galveston Island, its business owners are going to have to figure out how to function in this new normal.
“Tourism is the backbone of all businesses in Galveston,” he said. “If I’m not selling fried shrimp, I’m not giving that AC repair man work. And then he can’t give his suppliers any business because he’s not buying air conditioners from them,” Gaido says. “And the guy here in Galveston that I buy chicken from, I can’t give him any business. And Maceo Spice downtown, I’m not buying any spices from them if nobody’s ordering any gumbo. We’re all in this together, regardless if you sell poboys or if you are Broome Welding. Just like a normal economy, we need to be open in order for the whole system to work.”
In the meantime, Gaido is telling his employees to focus on what they can do to make the situation safer. The beaches are open, by government decree, and the tourists are coming.
“Does economic stability take priority over health and safety? Absolutely not,” he said. “But we needed to try to get things going again in the safest way possible. What we’re telling our customers is that we’re taking a balanced and measured approach to open up while maintaining 100 percent safety. So we’ve got to find a balance. We won’t know until we try something but I don’t think we could have sat idly any longer and just say, ‘Okay, well, we’re going to let this virus control our lives for another eight months,’ and by then we’ll be lining up on the bread line to feed our children.”