Port Aransas, Texas — Beaches around the city of Port Aransas in Nueces County somewhat reopened Sunday morning. Port Aransas Mayor Charles Bujan told the Southside Light on Sunday that the move was taken by the city after public safety became a real factor.
“Safety is a major issue with vehicles parked on access roads and side roads,” Mayor Bujan told the Southside Light on Sunday. “We cannot get our EMS and Fire Department into our neighborhoods.”
Nueces County beaches have been closed to vehicle traffic by order of Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales, who time and again has reminded the community that she has the authority take such action, if she so thinks it to be necessary. On Friday, the Texas General Land Office (GLO) seemed to back that up by indicating that Judge Canales had contacted them on several occasions regarding the closure order. The GLO then turned about and basically indicated that they were giving local officials the authority to do as they saw fit and that the General Land Office would not interfere. But for Mayor Bujan today’s move was not political—it was about keeping people safe.
“We can’t endanger people who are walking in the middle of our streets to get to the beach,” Bujan said.
The closure has sparked outrage among locals who value their constitutionally guaranteed right to access Texas public beaches. Many argue that the order restricting vehicle access did nothing more than have a reverse impact than what was intended, by causing more people to gather in a small space. Opponents of the closure argue that if they were able to drive on the beach and spread out, then they would be able to practice social distancing and spread out along the miles of Texas public beach. But for County Judge Canales, who has continually been accused of mismanagement of the crisis, felt as if she was making the right call.
Time and time again, Canales, whose primary function is the primary administrator of the county under Texas laws, has gone out of her way to remind the local constituency that she was taking public safety into consideration and closing the beaches to vehicular traffic was going to help “slow the spread” of coronavirus. State Public Health officials say that there is no indication of such data and that if anything, the virus would be spread from places such as grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants where potential beach visitors often stop at to pick up supplies for their outing. The mandatory mask order was meant to slow the spread in the regards, leaving many feeling like she was now overstepping her authority.
The bigger picture is that actions by county officials like Canales is that they are sparking a battle in the upcoming Texas Legislature. Many are suggesting that some sort of law could be presented which would place mayors and county judges on equal footing and let each make their own decisions without question.
Repeatedly, some county judges have made it seem that their fellow county commissioners were consulted about decisions and that communications between county and city leaders were absolutely fluid, However, there have also been repeated documented reports that this is not the case—especially in Nueces County.
When the Nueces County order first came into effect, Nueces County Commissioner Brent Chesney took to social media confirming that he was not consulted on the matter by County Judge Canales and then when he was consulted he asked for data proving the point. Canales could not and still has not proven reasonable data to validate her point.
However, the Centers for Disease Control shows that there is no evidence that her point would be valid. In fact, they suggest that public beaches might actually be safe if social distancing is followed. That theory would be a major defeat to those like Canales who believe so strongly that beaches ought to be closed. But now that the decision has been made, it is has almost gone too far to turn back without having to admit that the decision was wrong in the first place. The only thing to do now is defend the position and that defense might only end up in court if opponents keep it entirely focused on public safety and less about the politics. If they keep it focused on public safety then it is highly likely that the order could be overturned in higher courts.
But back in Port Aransas, Mayor Bujan also argues that the move has also caused a financial hardship on his city by having them already delegate their overtime budget. There is still no solid guarantee from federal representatives that local governments would actually get the reimbursements that were originally promised under the CARES Act of 2020.
This story will be updated throughout.