For New Braunfels’ mom-and-pop river outfitter businesses, a mainstay of the city’s tourism industry, the double-whammy of closures in March and June due to the COVID-19 outbreak have been economically catastrophic.
Most Texas businesses closed under a state order in March, but reopened in May.
But in late June, amid rising cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order shutting down bars, limiting restaurant capacity and large gatherings, and also ordering all tube and rafting businesses to close.
The second closing of rafting and tubing businesses came after people packed waterways after the state reopened in May.
State officials at the time said the targeted, measured directives in the order “are based on links between certain types of businesses and services and the recent rise in positive cases throughout the state.”
City officials then closed river parks along the Comal River and Guadalupe River within the city limits of New Braunfels.
The Herald-Zeitung spoke with New Braunfels Councilmember Matthew Hoyt for this story in his capacity as co-owner of Corner Tubes.
He said that when he received the notice from the governor ordering the business to close for a second time, he was forced to lay off his 32 employees.
“It was one of the hardest days of my life, having to lay off these good, hard-working people, most of them residents of New Braunfels,” Hoyt said. “They didn’t deserve this.”
He said many of his employees are young but are “not looking for gas money or moving money.”
“They’re working to pay bills for their family,” he said. “Those calls were just as hard to make as some of the ones for some of our senior employees — maybe their wife lost her job in the first (set of closures in March). Now to tell them this, there were definitely some tears over the phone. Some people are still really upset and rightfully so. This is devastating.”
Hoyt said he’s been in constant contact with state officials. There’s no indication that they will allow river outfitter businesses to reopen this season.
“This is sending a lot of New Braunfels vacationers to other markets, he said. “It’s had an adverse effect on the rest of our market. It’s easy for the folks in Austin to sit behind a desk and make decisions, but it’s a lot harder when you know these people and understand how this is going to impact their families, and their ability to provide for them.”
It’s been a half-full, half-empty 2020 season for Schlitterbahn, as the New Braunfels institution has dealt with some unique challenges.
The park closed in March, along with other businesses deemed unessential. When the Texas economy started to reopen, the park was forced to limit how many people could visit.
Schlitterbahn reopened its waterparks in New Braunfels and Galveston on June 13.
“The governor has allowed us to operate at 50% capacity,” said park spokesman Aaron Martinez. “We’re operating a little under that for safety — anywhere from 30% to 50% capacity. We are seeing really good numbers based on that. We’re happy with the folks who are coming in to visit the park.”
The park implemented numerous health, safety and hygiene enhancements to comply with state and local health guidelines.
The park established a new reservation system, requiring each guest to have a reservation before their visit.
Schlitterbahn also instituted requirements such as guests completing a pre-visit health screening declaration 24 hours before admission and a touchless temperature screening prior to entering the facility. Masks are also required.
Martinez said the park is seeing increased reservations through August.
“We’re happy to be open and be able to provide for season pass holders and our guests,” Martinez said. “I think we’re more concerned about the longevity of the brand. (Year) 2020 has been a financial hit. We didn’t see this coming. Nobody did, but I think our plan is for the success of 2021 and beyond.”
Martinez said he’s been with the company eight years and has not seen a season quite like 2020.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a season where we’ve had to adapt so much to the reality of what’s going on in the world,” he said.