Tourists Are Flooding Into Alabama Beach Towns Again

“We had no idea the pent-up demand there was.”

Many people crowded on a beach on a foggy day.
A Gulf Shores beach on Memorial Day weekend. Slate

Beaches in coastal Alabama are filling up again. The roads are so choked with tourists that weekend traffic has become fully gridlocked. Restaurants, still at limited capacity for dining in, have lines of eager customers—and sometimes an hour wait or longer.

“It’s been crazy,” said Ike Williams, the founder of the equipment rental company Ike’s Beach Service. “This was the busiest Memorial Day weekend I’ve probably ever had. We didn’t think people would be vacationing the way they are—it’s a lot better than what I feared.”

It has been nearly four weeks since Alabama reopened its beaches in the coastal towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, and more than two since restaurants and bars reopened. Even though coronavirus cases are still on the rise in the state, carefree crowds of vacationers have flocked there in huge numbers. This past weekend could be considered a neat bookend to the story of the tourist town’s COVID-19 experience. Just before the beaches shut down and the restaurants closed their dining rooms back in March, videos of young spring breakers shrugging off warnings about the virus circulated on social media to widespread outrage. Two months later, those same sorts of videos are cropping up again, this time with the more family-filled (but similarly untroubled) summer crowds.

These crowds aren’t normal for the city, even with a holiday. Hunter Harrelson, the owner of vacation rental company Beachball Properties, said that last year his rental properties had had an occupancy rate of 51 percent in May. This year, it’s been over 80 percent. And Memorial Day weekend—as well as the next two weekends—were all booked up. “We had no idea the pent-up demand there was,” he said. Harrelson said that the day Gov. Kay Ivey announced that the beaches would be reopened was “the single largest sales day in the history of the business.”

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have a combined population of around 19,000 but see on average more than 6 million tourists per year. Residents described the weekend’s visitors as Fourth of July–level crowds, meaning tens of thousands of people. Remarkably, according to residents, it’s been this way from the moment the beach opened up to the public. “The beach has been packed almost every day since they reopened the beaches,” said Melvin Shepard, the head of the city’s beach rescue.

Beyond pent-up demand, there are a few factors that explain the sustained crowds. Closed schools mean that families are more easily able to take off. Alabama opened its beaches before Florida. Coastal Alabama is within driving distance of much of the South. Travel difficulties may have caused some Midwestern retirees who spend the winter on the Gulf Coast to stick around. And in a strange twist of fortune, the economic downturn may have actually helped the community: Alabama is a budget option compared with Miami or the Bahamas.

It all adds up to a festive scene. Several people said that, if you didn’t watch the news, you might even forget the pandemic was happening. Harrelson said he’s only seen “a couple ladies” wearing masks. “They’re not not concerned,” he said of the locals and tourists. “But they’re taking the approach of This is my risk, this is my American right, the numbers are so low, so I’m willing to take that risk for me and my family.” There were also few concerns over the packed condos. “I could count on one hand the people who’ve called to ask if we’ve Lysol-ed things down.”

Tracy Brayfield, the assistant general manager at Ole Franco’s Italian Restaurant in Orange Beach, said that she’s only heard two customers express concern. More customers have thanked the staff for not wearing masks. (Under the statewide health order, servers have to wear masks, but many restaurants ignore the rule.)

The tourists aren’t just Alabamians, nor even just Southerners. Some residents say that they’re seeing large numbers from Mississippi and Louisiana, but also Midwestern states such as Michigan and Ohio. “People think, Oh, it’s those rednecks,” Harrelson said. “But we’ve got guests from Indiana and Illinois and everywhere coming down here.”

In a segment Monday that angered many residents, a CNN reporter aired scenes of packed restaurants, bars, and stores. “Everybody’s gotta go somehow, you know what I mean?” one 21-year-old woman told the reporter as she lounged on the beach. “I don’t want to die, but if that’s what God has in store for my life, that’s OK.” Another young person told the reporter that if Donald Trump wasn’t wearing a mask, “I’m not gonna wear a mask. If he’s not worried, I’m not worried.”

Several business owners protested that the portrait of recklessness didn’t tell the full story of the town, where some locals—a solidly conservative group on the whole—express conflicted feelings over a situation that has been a financial lifeline but is likely endangering the community.

“Most of the tourists are carefree,” said Rosemary Steele, the owner of DeSoto’s Seafood Kitchen, noting that few of them wear masks. “The residents you see being a little more careful. A lot of locals are on edge about being open to the entire country.” Many local employees still put an emphasis on sanitizing surfaces, washing hands, and wearing masks. Steele said that when the state had been shut down, residents were careful to keep their distance in the grocery stores.

Brayfield said that even while she is happy to have the crowds and thinks the fears are overblown, others disagree. “Some of the locals are not real receptive about it,” she said. Even now, the unusually high demand for carryout orders suggests that many locals are playing it safe. Some say they worry about visitors from harder-hit places bringing the virus to their community. Coastal Baldwin County has only had 280 cases and nine deaths, making it one of the safest counties in the state. But even neighboring Mobile County, a feeder for daytrips to the beach and one of the major COVID-19 hot spots in the state, makes some locals nervous. (It’s worth noting the racial disparities: Baldwin County is largely white, while Mobile, which contains one of the state’s largest cities, is largely black.)

Some of the hourly wage workers who don’t benefit from tips are more likely to question the necessity of coming in contact with so many people. Business owners face a different calculus, but many are not as confident as some of the viral videos might suggest. Williams said he thinks a lot of people like him are taking the virus seriously. “There are fools out there, people talking like it’s no big deal—it is a big deal,” he said. “I’m not unsympathetic, I’m not all about the dollar. But you get criticized whatever you do. If you stay open, you’re wrong. If you stay closed, you’re wrong.”

Many residents say that while they have anxiety over the crowded grocery stores and gas stations, the beach itself isn’t the problem. And it’s true that beaches are comparatively safe places for recreation. Shepard, the beach rescue chief, said that his team has seen that most people on the beach keep their distance from other groups. And he said the city is trying to urge people to take safety precautions and social distance. “Some guests listen, some guests don’t,” he said.

But even those who worry about the community’s safety are eager to say how much the return to tourism season has helped them. Steele said her restaurant has had more customers than this same period last year, and that while she can’t know if it’ll make up for the revenue she lost during the late spring break season, she’s still thankful for it. She said her restaurant was able to keep all of its employees on during the stay-at-home order because of the federal aid, but because of delays in unemployment claim processing, they still had to worry about helping them pay bills in the meantime. Kim Holley, a server at Doc’s Seafood Shack and Oyster Bar in Orange Beach, said that having her full job back has relieved anxieties over her daughter’s college tuition. “I was sweating it for a while,” she said, “but everything worked itself out.”

Alabama had its largest single-day increase in coronavirus cases on Monday—Memorial Day—since the pandemic began. The number of reported cases continues to grow. There have now been more than 15,700 cases and 580 deaths in the state.

Steele was one of the few people to voice concerns that the aggressive reopenings could have a negative economic impact. “There’s a lot of restaurants that aren’t taking the precautions, and I just don’t want us to have another spike in cases and have them shut the economy down again,” she said. But Harrelson said that he can’t imagine any scenario like that. “I believe Pandora’s box has been opened,” he said. “And I don’t believe any second wave or anything could get the governors to close the economy back down.”