As global markets nosedived, hundreds of college students crowded onto a beachfront stage on a warm Texas afternoon.
The tightly packed throng lingered for hours Thursday, soaking up the sun and other typical Spring Break fare, including bikini and push-up contests and free music shows, seemingly oblivious to the market upheaval and the warnings from health experts to practice social distancing.
The previous day, as the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, hundreds of them had partied for hours at a nearby nightclub where rapper Silento performed. And on Sunday, many headed to a massive pool party at a beachside resort.
Welcome to South Padre Island — the spring break Mecca in southern Texas where the deadly coronavirus is barely an afterthought.
“We tell everybody: ‘Wash your hands, don’t stand too close to each other, wear condoms’ – you know, the usual,” said Clayton Brashear, who owns Clayton’s Beach Bar and oversees the stage that hosts the events. “But these kids don’t listen.”
Brashear, whose venue opened in 2011, said he expects a surge of visitors this week as several large Texas schools, including the University of Texas at Austin and Texas Tech, sent their students on spring break after classes Friday.
The highly contagious virus has sickened more than 169,000 people worldwide globally and killed at least 6,600. Authorities have ordered unprecedented closures of crowded venues and public places, including ski resorts, beaches, nightclubs, sporting events and concert venues, as they struggle to contain the spread.
It’s also causing violent swings in global equities. On Thursday, U.S. stock indexes plunged the most since 1987, ending the 11-year bull market, the longest on record. On Sunday, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to near zero in an emergency action. Stocks plunged anew Monday.
Read more: ‘They Blew It’: Wall Street Reacts to Fed’s Emergency Cut
Young people who get infected are at far less risk of ending up in critical condition than older adults. But infectious disease experts have said that healthy people with none or mild symptoms still can spread the disease to others who are vulnerable, and urged people of all age groups to limit their exposure to others.
On Monday, Deborah Birx, who leads President Donald Trump’s virus response group, stressed that millennials “are the core group that will stop this virus” and urged them “to hold their gatherings to under 10 people, not just in bars and restaurants, but in homes.”
“We really want people to be separated at this time,” Birx said at a White House press conference.
Public exhortations haven’t yet done much to derail the train of visitors to this resort town on a thin barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, a 45-minute drive from the border.
At Isla Grand Beach Resort, where a beachfront cabana goes for $370 a night, occupancy is down slightly from prior years but the number of college kids is holding strong, an employee in the bookings department told Bloomberg News.
Over the weekend, several state and municipal governments, including Ohio, Illinois and New York City, moved to close or curtail operations at crowded venues like bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
Meanwhile, Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Friday declared a state of disaster for all counties in the state, saying authorities are taking “proactive measures” to contain the virus and keep residents safe. Those included restrictions for visits to places like nursing homes and hospitals, but didn’t address the crowded tourist spots on the coast.
That same day, the City of South Padre Island said in a statement that it’s working with restaurants, hotels and businesses to take precautions regarding the health and safety of guests, and that “most events appear to have less than one thousand guests.”
There are no cases of Covid-19 in the town or the Rio Grande Valley, according to the statement. “At this time, travel to unaffected areas is not restricted,” the town said. It encouraged visitors to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on hand-washing and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
Many college students brush off the risks.
“They’re not worried about it,” Quinn Jobe, a freshman at Navarro College, said of the students he met during the week he spent on South Padre Island. “On the other hand, I keep a bottle of hand sanitizer to assure that I don’t catch it since there has been coronavirus reports over in cities nearby.”
As of Sunday, Texas had tallied 77 cases, but none so far in Cameron County, which includes South Padre Island, according to Johns Hopkins University. Still, some cities that are prime spring break destinations aren’t taking any chances. Fort Lauderdale and Miami on Sunday closed several stretches of beach and ordered bars and restaurants to operate at 50% capacity and close early.
In South Padre, the mood has been more upbeat.
“We’re not worried about it — we’ve been drinking Coronas all day bro,” one bare-chested attendant clad in sunglasses and an upside-down visor hat told KRGV-TV, a local station, on March 9.
The nation’s elected leaders aren’t marching in lockstep with the advice of public health officials. In an interview Sunday with Fox News, U.S. Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican, encouraged people to “just go out, go to a local restaurant” to help small businesses as well as workers who rely on wages and tips.
That contradicts the recommendation of the CDC, which is encouraging people to stay home as much as possible. Later in the day, the Atlanta-based agency urged everyone to avoid gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks.
Tourism is critical to South Padre Island, which has less than 2,900 permanent residents but attracts a staggering 5.2 million visitors annually, according to its financial report. Taxes from hotels and motels are the biggest source of revenue for the local government.
And with school closings announced across Texas, Brashear of Clayton’s Beach Bar expects an additional surge of students who may head for the beach instead of following the advice of health experts to put distance between themselves and others. He said he’s considering keeping the stage up for an extra week.
“We’re still business as usual,” said Brashear, who estimates his beach events draw as many as 5,000 people during the busiest days. “Till we hear something different, we’re gonna keep going.”
— With assistance by Anne Reifenberg
(Updates with Birx comment in 10th paragraph.)