CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – As of early June, hardly anyone had tested positive for the corona virus. One more thing one day. Three next. Then zero. Zero. Zero.
Word spread that Corpus Christi, always a popular beach resort for Texans from across the state, was a safe place to go. They didn’t even need masks indoors. It was an oasis from the virus.
“People in San Antonio, in Houston, Austin, even Dallas, knew we had low caseload,” said Peter Zanoni, the city manager. “It was a nice getaway from the rules, regulations, subjudice and gloom.”
It turned out that no place was safe.
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Now, the city has 325,000 one of the fastest growing outbreaks in Texas, a state where new records of positive cases were set for four straight days last week, with nearly 1
Local officials have left to prevent an outbreak that went into overdrive without warning. As of June 15, the city had taken 360 cases throughout the outbreak; alone on Wednesday it was 445.
The city’s two dozen contact trackers are so overwhelming that they can no longer seek detailed information about each new infection. Hospital beds have been filled at an alarming rate, prompting grounds for additional staffing.
The surge in cases forced local leaders, businesses and residents to contend with the uncomfortable reality that the same cities that help the city thrive financially may have caused the outbreak. The feeling is less of anger than of frustration over a seemingly impossible dilemma.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would say to tourists, ‘Don’t come to our beaches,'” said Mayor Joe McComb, 72.
The speed of dissemination is what struck the researchers. Other vacation destinations have seen an increasing number of cases, but the increase in Corpus Christi surpassed even larger city centers, Dr. Christopher Bird, professor at Texas A&M Corpus Christi.
“The part that’s different here is just how fast we went up in the number of cases and how fast it spread,” Dr. Bird, who has modeled the outbreak for officials.
The reason for the rapid spread in Corpus Christi is not certain. Data collected from mobile phones indicated that the movement around the city returned to pre-pandemic levels in early June, especially in restaurants. “When I saw it, I knew it wasn’t a good sign,” Dr. Bird.
Many pointed to the visitors from big cities.
“I think they should stay home,” said Jasmine Rodriguez, 24, a security guard at a La Michoacana grocery store. “There should be checkpoints and a mandatory stay in your city.”
But some locals said they had no one but themselves to blame. People went to bars. They party. They did not make social distances or wear masks. The city did not require masks in most stores until last week, days before a government order.
“That’s us. Yes, we are,” said Marilyn McCaleb, 62, speaking through a flower-print mask as she went to dinner at a local HEB store. “They don’t wear their masks – maybe they do now, because they have to.”
Whatever the reason, the virus was almost nowhere, and then, apparently overnight, it was everywhere. Bars. Restaurants. Graduation. A draft lot for a local baseball player picked up by a major league team. A casual meeting on the beach.
“I know they would say to the contact tracker, oh, I was on the beach and some girls from San Antonio told us at the end of the night that they had Covid,” said Annette Rodriguez, public health director for Corpus Christi and the surrounding county. “And we shared a bottle.”
The county attorney tested positive, as did many city workers. At one point, 10 percent of firefighters in the city were ill or quarantined due to possible exposure. At the City Hall, staff who were back in the office after months of leaving home in the spring were told to return to the remote work. Officials imposed a curfew for the beach and barred cars from the sandy beach during the July 4 holiday.
The contrast with even a few weeks ago could not be more strong.
Initially, city officials had been able to jump in and contain the few small outbreaks that existed: at a meat processing plant or a halfway house. Officials tested aggressively and got those exposed to isolation. They felt secure in their attitude.
Corpus Christi is a politically divided and culturally mixed city, with a Democratic county leader, a conservative mayor and a majority who are Latin American.
“It’s not even purple. It’s more like lavender,” said Barbara Canales, Nueces County’s top manager, which includes Corpus Christi. “We are much more interested in our own garden than in the national scene.”
Last month, the city emerged as an example of a place hit financially by pandemic-related shutdowns – with unemployment of nearly 16 percent in early June – without actually experiencing much of a viral outbreak at all. Few residents knew anyone who had fallen ill.
Tourism was not only destroyed, but another major industry in the city – its huge port for oil and gas exports – suffered from falling demand and falling oil prices.
Since Texas reopened as of May 1, Texans began flocking to Corpus. It started on Memorial Day weekend and did not end for several weeks.
“The whole town was completely sold out. Every hotel. Every short-term rental,” said Brett Oetting, the head of the Corpus Christi tourism agency. “What happened throughout the month of June: every weekend was a Memorial Day weekend.”
Hotels, restaurants and bars that were starving for life grew back. But some entrepreneurs became wary of the number of people who suddenly flooded into the city.
“It was awful – it was so busy,” said Brigitte Kazenmayer, 59, the owner of the popular breakfast spot JB’s German Bakery & Cafe. “People don’t wear masks. They didn’t understand the six feet.”
Miss Kazenmayer, who immigrated from Germany and fell in love with Corpus Christi, said that in June the lines would sneak out through the door and across the parking lot. “They came from Houston, Austin, San Antonio – and I think, why are you here? You bring it here!” she said of the virus. “But they like the beach. That’s why I’m here too.”
Bait Bucket, an ash-box in a store painted bright yellow, saw so many customers in June that they had to add a second seller to handle the crowds, says Miriam Longoria, 21, who worked behind the counter.
The store attracts both locals and tourists, and people kept coming, she said, even after the governor ordered bars to close at the end of June and other places in the city began to slow down.
“This is the only thing you can do is fish,” said Jeff Soward, 56, holding up a white plastic bag of dead shrimp that he had just bought inside. He said he knew several people who had been infected: a 72-year-old business partner in Mexico; children to several friends; his daughter’s boyfriend in Dallas.
“The kids I know who have it, they have a good time,” he observed.
But managing the outbreak has strained medical resources in a city where officials said nearly one in five residents do not have health insurance. Hospitals have stopped performing optional surgeries and are paying overtime to keep up.
“The coast is not ready,” Canales said during a daily news briefing this week. “It’s not clear to come at the moment.”
People still come, albeit in smaller numbers. The beaches are open. And the surf is inviting.
But now, visitors from other parts of Texas are wary of being around people in Corpus Christi.
At a camper camping just steps from the beach, Billy Arocha, 34, was preparing to barbecue when his three children were playing in a sprinkler. Mr Arocha, outside San Antonio, said he had considered canceling the trip when he saw the cases explode in Corpus Christi. “I’m scared,” he said, adding an expletive to emphasize.
When planning their stay, Arocha said he was considering eating at a restaurant, “but no longer.” He said he didn’t talk to anyone in town and only went to the beach when it was worried.
The holiday had been intended as a much needed break and a way to celebrate his wife’s birthday. But the mood had darkened over their festivities.
“We just got a call that her aunt is close to dying of coronavirus,” he said. “That virus is something else.”