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In Texas beach city, out-of-towners drove in an outbreak

Brittany Thangiah worked her shift at Water Street Oyster Bar in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Tuesday. The beachside city has one of the state’s worst COVID outbreaks.Christopher Lee/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.”

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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 records for positive cases were set for four straight days last week, with nearly 11,000 recorded 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.

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“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 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,” Bird said.

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 Fourth 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.

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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 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 6 feet.”

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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 salesperson 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.

But dealing with the outbreak has strained medical resources in a city where officials said nearly 1 in 5 residents does not have health insurance. Hospitals have stopped performing elective surgeries and are paying overtime to keep up.

“The coast is not clear,” Canales said during a daily news briefing last week. “It is not clear to come to at this time.”