County and city will close bars, limit restaurants and halt utility shut-offs during virus outbreak

After declaring a local disaster Tuesday afternoon, Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara speaks to a gathering of health workers, government officials and business owners on Wednesday morning to discuss next steps.

PRESIDIO COUNTY — The City of Marfa and Presidio County have coordinated to close hotels, short-term rentals and RV parks beginning Monday, March 23. In Marfa city limits, closures will continue for seven days, and in the county, the order is for 15 days.

The City of Marfa is also ordering all bars to close and all restaurants to switch to take-out or delivery only, beginning today at 8 a.m. The city will not disconnect utilities, encompassing water, sewer, natural gas and trash pick-up services as long as the order is in effect. Price gouging is illegal, and the city will compare current prices to prices on March 13 to enforce the law.

The proclamation issued by Mayor Manny Baeza is effective for seven days and can be extended for weeks or more based on the rapidly changing situation around coronavirus. The city will meet virtually early next week to discuss extensions. The county will meet in person on Monday in Presidio at 10 a.m., limited to 10 attendees. They hope to broadcast the meeting.

The county will order the closure of the Riata, El Cosmico, the Tumble In RV Park, the Apache Pines RV Park, Cibolo Creek, short-term rentals, Chinati Hot Springs and Loma Paloma RV Park for 15 days, subject to extension.

Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara declared a local disaster at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, citing the new coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it causes. The city followed suit, and both actions expanded the powers of the local governments. On Wednesday morning, Guevara gathered local health workers, city government officials, the emergency management coordinator and a group of business owners to discuss what should be done as COVID-19 spreads across the globe, the United States, Texas and in nearby El Paso-Juarez.

“We’re not here to say, ‘We need everybody to close all their businesses,’ or, ‘We want the hotels closed,’” Guevara said as the meeting opened, “but it is important that we start communicating, and I do believe that there will be more occasions like this in the very near future.”

The meeting’s group of 25 attendees outstripped the White House’s recommendation to limit gatherings to be no more than 10 people. While some stood at a distance, others bumped elbows in greeting and stood around chatting before the meeting began. Judge Guevara said Shelley Bernstein has offered to train county and city officials to use Zoom, a software that is compliant with the Texas Open Meetings Act and would facilitate virtual meetings instead of in-person gatherings during the outbreak. The county commissioners court plans to meet on Monday, and Guevara hopes it will be a digital gathering.

Dr. John Paul Schwartz was appointed county health authority last year when Presidio County realized having an authority to weigh in on mass gathering applications was a necessity in Texas Code. At the Wednesday meeting, he spoke about other counties in Texas taking drastic measures, like ordering the closure of bars and forcing restaurants to use to-go only, to better control the virus’ spread.

Schwartz commended the “creative solutions to keep life going as good as it can,” but added, “It’s going to have disastrous results if people have to do things they don’t want to do.” He hoped the county could keep businesses alive, keep people safe and keep the spread down. Then he mentioned options like encouraging tourists to leave town or taking temperatures at all hotels, noting that Airbnb guests’ temperatures would be nearly impossible to successfully monitor.

The doctor also noted that some parts of the tri-county area are not taking the disease seriously thus far. “In West Texas you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but that’s the way things go really bad really quick,” Schwartz said. “When people are still stubborn, more regulations will have to be put into place.”

Marfa City Manager John Washburn also weighed the decision, bringing up his concern over the economic impact in the short and long term. “Is it better to be really proactive and overreact and say, ‘Let’s see if this 15 days really works?’ The larger question from the health side is, if we don’t try that, we’re potentially taking a risk that it’s far longer.”

County Emergency Management Coordinator Gary Mitchke wanted to work with business owners, to hear their input and work out a plan. Mentioning that the local jurisdiction has authority “to do what has to be done to protect everybody,” Mitchke said that if the county isn’t seeing enough changes by business owners, “We may have to make it happen.”

That’s when local business owner Kaki Aufdengarten interjected. “I don’t mean to be ugly, but why not just do it if you really believe a 15-day shutdown would keep us from a long economic disaster?”

“We’re here as business owners. This is spring break, and it’s how we live,” Aufdengarten, a proprietor of barbecue restaurant Convenience West, said. “But if we close and let’s say Ty [Mitchell of the Lost Horse] doesn’t because it is how he lives too, what’s the good of voluntarily closing if he doesn’t do it too?”

Mitchke said what the county would like is for owners to voluntarily close, and Mayor Baeza added that the county and city did not want to blindside businesses, restaurants and hoteliers with a decision that didn’t include their input. “Businesses here live on the margin and that could sink a business,” Dr. Schwartz added.

“None of us know what’s happening or have any authority,” Aufdengarten said. “You saying, ‘What should we do about it, guys?’ is kind of alarming because you’re supposed to know what’s happening.”

Hotel Saint George General Manager Emily Williams provided more context on the state of their hotel’s spring break tourism. Their occupancy dropped 30 percent from Tuesday night to Wednesday night, and hotel owner Tim Crowley said their occupancy will likely be down over 90 percent between last week and next week. Williams said it wasn’t sustainable for the long term, and a closure was possible simply due to operating margins. “If something was put into effect today, we’d deal with it today,” Crowley told officials who asked how much lead time would be needed if a hotel shutdown was put in place.

“Do we have all the answers? Absolutely not, but I don’t think anybody does. None of us know really where we’re going to end up with all of this,” the emergency management coordinator told business owners. “We’re not asking you for permission, we’re not asking what to do. We just want to hear your input.”

The virus spreads through person-to-person interactions; it can spread even before an infected person shows symptoms, and social distancing is the recommended method of stopping it. What remains unclear is what sort of impact quarantines, lockdowns or closure will have on Presidio County’s public health and economics.

No directives were given to business owners at the meeting, but hours later, the city and county came out with their orders. The announced closures represent the city and county’s continued efforts to fight a virus that has not yet arrived.