The Thornton family, who drove from Missouri, in Corpus Christi on July 7.Credit...Christopher Lee for The New York Times
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — As recently as early June, days went by with hardly anyone testing positive for the coronavirus. A single case one day. Three the next. Then zero. Zero. Zero.
Word spread that Corpus Christi, always a popular beachfront vacation spot for Texans from around the state, was a safe place to go. They didn’t even require masks indoors. It was an oasis from the virus.
“People in San Antonio, in Houston, Austin, even Dallas, knew that we had low caseload,” said Peter Zanoni, the city manager. “It was a nice getaway from the rules, the regulations, the doom and gloom.”
It turned out that no place was safe.
Now the city of 325,000 has one of the fastest-growing outbreaks in Texas, a state where new records for positive cases were set for four straight days last week, with nearly 11,000 recorded on Thursday. Corpus Christi has seen more cases per capita than Houston and a rapidly mounting death toll: of the 38 deaths recorded from the pandemic, 30 have come in July, including a baby less than 6 months old.
Local officials have been left scrambling to get ahead of an outbreak that went into overdrive without warning. As recently as June 15, the city had tallied 360 cases during the entirety of the outbreak; on Wednesday alone, there were 445.
The city’s two dozen contact tracers are so overwhelmed that they are no longer able to seek detailed information about each new infection. Hospital beds have filled at an alarming rate, prompting pleas for additional staffing.
The surge in cases forced local leaders, businesses and residents to grapple with the uncomfortable reality that the same out-of-towners who help the city thrive economically may have caused the outbreak. The feeling is less one of resentment than of frustration at a seemingly impossible dilemma.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d be telling tourists, ‘Don’t come to our beaches,’” said Mayor Joe McComb, 72.
The speed of the spread is what struck researchers. Other vacation destinations have seen a rising number of cases, but the increase in Corpus Christi outstripped even much larger major urban centers, said Dr. Christopher Bird, a professor at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
“The part that’s different here is just how fast we rose in the number of cases and how fast it spread,” said Dr. Bird, who has been modeling the outbreak for officials.
The reason for the rapid spread in Corpus Christi is not certain. Data gathered from cellphones indicated that movement around the city returned to pre-pandemic levels by early June, especially at restaurants. “When I saw that, I knew it wasn’t a good sign,” Dr. Bird said.
Many pointed at 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 partied. They did not social distance or wear masks. The city did not require masks in most retail stores until last week, days before a statewide order.
“It’s us. Yeah, it’s us,” said Marilyn McCaleb, 62, speaking through a flower-print mask as she went grocery shopping at a local H-E-B 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, seemingly overnight, it was everywhere. Bars. Restaurants. Graduation celebrations. A draft party for a local baseball player picked up by a major league team. A chance encounter on the beach.
“I know because they would say to the contact tracers, oh, I was at the beach and some girls from San Antonio told us at the end of the night that they had Covid,” said Annette Rodriguez, the 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 the firefighters in the city were out sick or quarantining because of possible exposure. At City Hall, staffers who were back in the office after months of working from home in the spring were told to return to remote work. Officials instituted a beach curfew and barred cars from the sands over the July 4 holiday.
The contrast with even a few weeks ago could not be more stark.
At first, city officials had been able to jump on and contain what few small outbreaks there were: at a meat processing plant, or a halfway house. Officials tested aggressively and got those who were exposed to isolate. They felt confident in their approach.
Corpus Christi is a politically split and culturally mixed town, with a Democratic county leader, a conservative mayor and a population that is majority Hispanic.
“It’s not even purple. It’s more like lavender,” said Barbara Canales, the top executive for Nueces County, which includes Corpus Christi. “We’re much more interested in our own backyard than in the national scene.”
Last month, the city stood out as an example of a place that had suffered economically from pandemic-related shutdowns — with unemployment at nearly 16 percent in early June — without actually experiencing much of a viral outbreak at all. Few residents knew anyone who had gotten sick.
Not only was tourism devastated, but another major industry in the city — its massive port for oil and gas exports — suffered from declining demand and plunging oil prices.
Then, as Texas reopened beginning on May 1, Texans began flocking to Corpus. It started on Memorial Day weekend and did not stop for weeks.
“The entire city was completely sold out. Every hotel. Every short-term rental,” said Brett Oetting, the head of the Corpus Christi tourism bureau. “What happened during the entire month of June: every weekend was a Memorial Day weekend.”
Hotels, restaurants and bars that had been starved for life surged back. But some business owners grew wary of the number of people suddenly flooding into town.
“It was horrible — it was so busy,” said Brigitte Kazenmayer, 59, the owner of the popular breakfast spot JB’s German Bakery & Cafe. “People didn’t wear masks. They didn’t understand the six feet.”
Ms. Kazenmayer, who immigrated from Germany and fell in love with Corpus Christi, said that in June the lines would snake out 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.”
The Bait Bucket, a cinder-block box of a store painted bright yellow, saw so many customers in June that they had to add a second sales person to deal with the crowds, said 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 in late June and other places in town began slowing down.
“This is the one thing you can do, is fish,” said Jeff Soward, 56, holding up a white plastic bag of dead shrimp he had just bought inside. He said he knew several people who had been infected: a 72-year-old business partner in Mexico; the children of several friends; his daughter’s boyfriend in Dallas.
“The kids I know that got it, they’re fine,” he observed.
But dealing with the outbreak has strained medical resources in a city where officials said nearly one in five residents does not have health insurance. Hospitals have stopped performing elective surgeries and are paying overtime to keep up.
“The coast is not clear,” Ms. Canales said during a daily news briefing this week. “It is not clear to come to at this time.”
Still, people come, albeit in smaller numbers. The beaches are open. And the surf is inviting.
But now it is the visitors from other parts of Texas who are wary of being around people in Corpus Christi.
At an R.V. campsite just a few steps from the beach, Billy Arocha, 34, prepared to grill as his three children played in a sprinkler. Mr. Arocha, from outside San Antonio, said he had considered canceling the trip when he saw the cases exploding in Corpus Christi. “I’m scared,” he said, adding an expletive for emphasis.
When they were planning their stay, Mr. Arocha said he considered going out to eat in a restaurant, “but not anymore.” He said he was not talking to anyone in town and only going to the beach when it was uncrowded.
The vacation had been meant 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 from the coronavirus,” he said. “That virus is something else.”