Last weekend, river outfitters got glimpses of a long-awaited return to livelihoods as visitors from near and far lined up for excursions out on the Comal and Guadalupe rivers, renting tubes from businesses offering half of what they normally offer.
But those and similar venues on Wednesday got the news they long awaited from the Texas Attorney General on Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest executive orders, which deciphered, will reopen or expand operations by river outfitters beginning this weekend.
“Being like so many others, we were unclear on what the latest orders meant,” said Shane Wolf, Rockin’ R River Rides general manager. “We were real excited about opening the doors and ready to pull the trigger on river rafting and tubing, but the initial ruling was that the river rafting could only be offered through a service, not a river operations company.
“We got further clarification because we need the river recreation back in this town,” he added. “We need people here buying things and providing tax dollars, but we want it to happen in a safe and sound way.”
On Tuesday, Abbott announced GA-21, which will reopen spas, beauty salons and barber shops under certain conditions Friday, and gyms and non-essential manufacturing venues by Monday, May 18. While not specifically addressing parks and rivers, it urged “minimum recommended health protocols for individuals engaging in water activities, such beaches, rivers, and lakes.”
It also stated “this executive order does not prohibit people from … visiting swimming pools, parks, beaches, rivers or lakes … so long as necessary precautions are maintained to reduce the transmission of (the virus) and minimize contact (between) people not in the same household.”
City and county officials first sought clarification on the governor’s orders issued April 27, which didn’t define parks and river operations as “essential,” so they remained closed.
Abbott’s latest update on Tuesday came closer to the mark, and was quickly supported by an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office.
“The AG’s opinion said the state of Texas says river outfitters may operate beginning on Friday,” New Braunfels Mayor Barron Casteel said. “We shared that with outfitters and county officials; on Thursday we’ll meet again on how we’ll manage it.”
Wolf helped draft COVID-19 response plans for businesses, screening and health protocols and prevention measures for employees, based on Texas Department of State Health Services’ Minimum Standard Health Protocols for parks, beaches and bodies of water and included in Abbott’s Open Texas guidelines announced April 27.
“Those protocols require social distancing (groups no larger than five people) on the rivers and also include guidance for shuttle buses, which would seem to make clear the governor envisions those businesses reopening,” Paul Anthony, Comal County public information officer, said on Wednesday. “So in short — yes, river outfitters can reopen Friday under the governor’s most recent executive order.”
Casteel said the meeting with outfitters and city staffers was planned before the latest developments.
“We scheduled it in anticipation of a possible change,” he said, reminding the city never closed river access, only areas with adjacent access. “A (new) river parks plan should be finalized (Wednesday) so it can be discussed on Thursday … It will (define) rules, limitations and how we’ll do things.
“For one, we won’t have lifeguards near the tube chute, which requires a certain number for it to operate, and we don’t have a full contingent of park rangers due to the limitations on one-on-one contact. We also want to make sure those policies reflect the same for our first-responders.
“We want to do things that comply with the law, fall under social distancing guidelines and at the same time allow people to operate. The plan will have to be changed — there’s nothing that will be perfect from the get-go. We’re going to have to change things as we go along.”
Wolf said customers should pack their patience. He said Rockin’ R was able to keep most of its 150 or so employees, which haven’t yet been rehired.
“We want all of our customers to come one and come all — with smiles on their faces but with plenty of patience,” he said. “With all of the COVID-19 limitations in place, with our shuttles and other operations not yet staffed, especially two weeks before Memorial Day.
“I think everyone is sympathetic to the entire cause. All of the outfitters are up against some hurdles in doing the social distancing on properties and shuttles. Like during the 2010 flood, we hope customers and their patience will be there — relaxing and not in chaos about getting shuttles and tubes fast enough — we’re just glad to have them back again.”