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.”
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 new records for positive cases were set for four straight days last week, with nearly 11,000 recorded on 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.
“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 Dr. 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,” Dr. Bird said.
Many pointed at the visitors from big cities.
“I think they should stay home,” said Jasmine Rodriguez, 24, a security guard at a La Michoacana grocery store. “There should be checkpoints and a mandatory stay-in-your-city.”
In Texas Beach City, Out-of-Towners Drove In an Outbreak