The Rio Grande Valley’s Winter Texan parks today might resemble an old western ghost town, the flying carports, tree limbs and debris from Hurricane Hanna replacing the cliché tumbleweed and dirt twisters. The ghostliness is normal; not so much the hurricane debris. But, 2020 has redefined normal or, at best, has emphasized that which is abnormal.
But the stillness and silence is louder and more prevalent than in the past. While managers and other personnel at these parks would be preparing to take reservations for the upcoming Winter Texan season, the phones are also eerily silent, maybe a ring here or there — questions about COVID-19 usually following.
Just like with high schools in South Texas and with many businesses, Winter Texans, the parks and the entertainers who travel from all over the country to enjoy the Valley are on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has prompted national media attention in the area and made it a virus hotspot.
It’s a hurry-up-and-wait scenario that has all those involved guessing at best at what the season will — or will not — bring.
Barbara and Lonny Schuhmacher are the managers at Texas Trails Park on Owassa Road in Pharr. The Park has about 850 lots/spaces for Winter Texans to set up. The park, which usually holds weekly summer dances for those who stay year round, is not closed, but also not open in the regular sense. There are no activities, no pools and the friendship hall is on lockdown.
“They’re bored to tears,” Barb said. “Many of them are afraid. There’s no more hugging and carrying on. There are no more dances or bingo or Friday hamburger night. The only things open basically are the shuffleboard courts, where you have two to a side and the outdoor swimming pool.
“We have outdoor tennis and pickleball too but it’s just too hot during the summer.”
Published by the Business and Tourism Research Center of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Robert C. Vackar College of Business and Entrepreneurship, the Winter Texan 2017-18 Survey Report estimated that there were 106,000 Winter Texans (or 56,700 households) living in the Valley during the those seasons.
According to their findings, Winter Texans spent an average of $9,314 per household in the Valley and another $104 to $151 per trip to Mexico. The total economic impact added up to $528 million in the Valley and $32 million in Mexico border towns.
“Their economic impact to Mission, to the Valley, is exceptional,” Mission Mayor Armando O’Caña said. “I’ll walk into about any cafe during any morning and they are here. There will be several already up, having breakfast and ready for the day. They celebrate all over the Valley. Their economic impact has no boundaries and is exceptional.
“Their impact at the hospitals and wherever they volunteer across the Valley is major for our communities and our businesses.”
Three years ago, country music singer Rusty Rierson drove from his home in Kansas to the Rio Grande Valley in the middle of winter with his car heater not working just so he could perform and get his foot into the door of the Winter Texan entertainment scene.
The trip has proven to be beneficial for Rierson, the parks and the throngs of winter residents who fill the entertainment halls to hear him perform.
For the upcoming season, Rierson said he has about 50 performances scheduled. Many RV parks and other venues may also attempt to book him during the season. He is scheduled to be in the Valley for a week in mid-December before Christmas and then after the New Year for the remainder of the season.
“I hope it happens, I really need it to happen,” Rierson said. “It’s truly shaping up to be an excellent season but right now everything is up in the air and it’s all based on the conditions. Nobody knows right now and things are changing all the time.”
While many remained longer, hoping at the time to wait out the pandemic, Winter Texans from Canada moved back home quickly — at the request of their government — when COVID-19 hit.
According to a March article in The Monitor, “The Canadian government issued a directive that all Canadians that are abroad should return to Canada as soon as they can, and then when we get back to Canada, it’s a little uncertain. We could face the two-week quarantine or self-isolation or self-monitoring, one of the three,” said Doug Scoville, a Nova Scotian who’s been traveling to the Valley for the past 15 years. “It’s pretty insane, isn’t it?”
Now there’s the question of whether they will be allowed to return. Canadians make up about 14% of Winter Texans according to UTRGV’s 2017-18 report — even though many parks have claimed that there have been an increase of Canadians in their parks the past two to three years.
“Think about that percent not being able to return,” said O’Caña, the Mission mayor. “That’s millions of dollars to the Valley. It’s major.”
Brenda Copeland, manager at Bentsen Grove Resort in Mission, said that four or five couples didn’t return home and remained after the season.
“Some have just locked themselves in,” she said. “I’m waiting to talk to the owner to see what we are going to do.”
Bentsen Grove also has about 800 lots with some permanent homes and some RV spaces.
Cynthia Schweitzer, manager at the Mission Bell-Trade Winds resorts in Mission, said many of her residents still gather to play cards in small groups, usually “with the same ones they are always spending time with but in groups of seven or eight at most,” she said.
Parks are taking reservations. Schweitzer said even though it’s early, the park is at about the equivalent of where it has been the past two years in terms of reservations to this point.
Still, most of the calls come from those who are looking for answers. Answers that are not set in stone and could change on a regular basis, as COVID has disrupted all areas of people’s lives.
“I got a phone call earlier this week though,” Schweitzer said. “Someone new coming for the season wanted to make a reservation. They understood that due to COVID things may change or may not happen. It really floored me.
“We are just playing it by ear. That’s all we can do now. But some are saying they’d rather face it down here. At least the weather is nice.”