Usually this time of year, the streets surrounding the Comal and Guadalupe rivers in New Braunfels are packed with people.
There are lines of vehicle traffic and people walking around with tubes. Police officers direct traffic. People shop at the stores. People eat at restaurants. People float.
That’s not the scene in 2020.
When the COVID-19 outbreak started to take hold in March, state officials forced retail shops to shutter for weeks. Restaurants were ordered to close their dining rooms and resort to offering take-out and delivery services to survive.
After that rough start to the tourist season — or maybe, in this case, it was a false start — retailers had renewed hopes of salvaging the season when state officials allowed stores to reopen when coronavirus cases remained low compared with other areas of the country.
“When we opened in May, we were slammed,” said Renee Nalls, co-owner of Ducky’s Swimwear & T-Shirts on South Union Avenue. “It was really good business, and everyone came out, wanting to support small businesses. The customers were saying that they were here to support
It was good for about six weeks. Pent up demand brought customers into the stores and restaurants. People arrived to float the rivers.
But that surge of visitors to New Braunfels’ tourist areas came to an abrupt end when state officials closed bars and river outfitters for a second time and limited restaurants to half-capacity. City officials also closed public access to rivers with the New Braunfels city limits.
“We were doing great, then in June the mayor shut down the entrance to the Comal River, and that detoured everybody up towards Guadalupe, River Road and Canyon Lake areas,” Nalls said. “We definitely saw it die down after that. July 4 was one the worst July fourths we’ve ever had.”
Nalls, a second-generation owner of the store, added that sales are off more than 50% from last summer.
Aefuk Cleary, owner of Frosty’s Shaved Ice, which shares a parking lot with Ducky’s, echoed those same sentiments. She said she estimates her sales to be down 80% compared with previous summers.
“When we opened in June, we saw a lot of people because this is a vacation area,” Cleary said. “On June 28, they closed down the river outfitters. There’s been little traffic. I’m thinking that maybe I should close. Right now, there’s no future.”
Dianne Cilson, who has owned and operated Di’s Homemade Pizza on West Lincoln Street across from Schlitterbahn for nine years, estimated business is down 75% compared to previous summers.
“We make our money three months out of the year. We’re a mom and pop shop, and we live for summer. This virus, we didn’t think that was going to happen. But we take it day by day. That’s all we can do. We have a big local following, and that really helps.”
There’s been little, if any, out of town traffic recently, she said.
“Look at the street,” she said. “We’re used to seeing buses and people flooding the streets. They would come in for pizza, and it’s just not there. But we will make it through with all of our loyal customers. They’re very supportive, and we thank God for that.”
In the Gruene Historic District, steps from the world-famous but temporarily closed Gruene Hall, Danita Hayes owns and operates Smiling Eye Photo Gallery, where visitors don western-style garb and pose for old-time photographs or a jail-themed mugshot.
The second-generation owner said it’s been mighty quiet at her establishment.
“We were okay when the bars were open,” Hayes said. “People were coming when the rivers were open for the tubing. When they closed the bars again, that was tough. There are a lot less people walking around, especially during the weekdays.
It feels like January, she said.
“They’re going to shop, see Gruene Hall and tube, and I’m an attraction that is something fun to do when they come here,” she said. “When those aren’t open, they don’t come as much.”
A few steps down that street, Genine Duniphin, general manager of Cantina Del Rio, said all the businesses are struggling in light of fewer visitors.
“At the beginning, before it hit, everything was slowing down,” Duniphin said. “I was losing people because everyone was scared. When we reopened, we got really busy. We were even blowing last year’s numbers away while seating at 50%. After the second shutdown, I think it scared more people.”
She added that there had been few out-of-towners visiting at a time when the restaurant is usually packed, with diners waiting for available tables.
“For the servers, they have less clientele,” she said. “We’re giving everyone their fair share of hours and tables. It’s been hard, but we get it. We understand.”
Back at Ducky’s, Nalls said that despite the recent downturn brought by the COVID-19 outbreak and related closures, she remains optimistic about the future of the business.
“It’s starting to pick back up,” she said. “I think people are starting to figure it out now. It’s been a very crazy season. It’s been up and down. I just hope everyone still has the idea of wanting to support small businesses and shop local because we’re all in recovery mode.”