Employers and employees are already struggling to cope with economic impact of coronavirus in Marfa

MARFA — The new coronavirus has not arrived in Marfa, but its presence in Texas is already rattling the Marfa economy. Many businesses have chosen to close their doors in hopes of preventing viral spread. Now, owners and employees are left wondering how long the closures will last, where they can get assistance and when, or if, they’ll be able to reopen their doors.

Krista Steinhauer, owner and chef at Stellina, decided to close her dining room last Wednesday, March 11, shifting to to-go food only. She and her staff had learned about nonsymptomatic transmission of coronavirus, and she worried that “the spring break hoards” would cause the virus to spread.

As to-go service began, Steinhauer noticed how much contact happens in a kitchen. “There’s really no way to make this a safe kind of thing to do,” she said. She chose to close Stellina’s doors the next day, and soon she discontinued making food for The Get Go.

“It’s hard. Every hour you make a new decision about how to deal with it, and it’s based on information or just doing the best I can,” she said.

As spring break approached, Steinhauer and many other business owners in Marfa prepared by stocking up on food, inventory and necessities to handle the influx of tourism.

“It’s a really barbaric kind of calculation you have to make too. I bought so much food. Everybody budgets for this time of year, this is your moneymaker,” she said. “And it’s a horrible thing thinking about public safety or money. It’s such a monsterous kind of debate you have in your mind every single hour.”

Steinhauer worried how her staff of 16 could weather the coronavirus’ arrival. During a bout of colds this winter, Stellina didn’t have enough healthy people to run the restaurant. She worried, if the cold could whip through the community like wildfire, how bad would coronavirus get? “The main thing you have to think about is medical services. I’m not going to be the asshole that gets 200 people sick and shuts down Big Bend Regional [Medical Center],” she said.

“I have 16 people on staff. There are no safety nets for them. And I basically live week to week like they do. Until we all just agree that we’re going to take care of each other, it’s like when do you pull the plug? I just decided to pull it.”

Now that she has pulled the plug, Steinhauer is rushing to get employees information for unemployment. “I can float them for two weeks and then I’m out of money too. Hopefully everybody’s going to come back to an incarnation of the restaurant in this town, but there’s no guarantees, because everyone’s going to have to take care of themselves in the meantime.”

“You don’t know about the person next to you. They could be completely fragile and devastated. It’s a new way to think about social responsibility and how we all take care of each other,” Steinhauer said. “This town is full of wage earners, so everybody needs that information. It’s really pushing me to more radical politics, that’s for sure.”

Steinhauer hopes other businesses will join the social distancing efforts and close their doors too. But some are choosing to stay in operation. The Lost Horse on Tuesday announced their decision to remain open. “We are well stocked on sanitizer and cleaner,” the statement said. The local bar would be cleaning, utilizing their open air backyard and keeping customers’ “well being and health first and foremost in mind.”

In response to other closures, the saloon said they support all businesses who have chosen to remain closed and support patrons choosing to stay home and wait out the virus. “We look forward to the next time we can all come together and enjoy each other’s company.”

While businesses wrestle with financial and public health decisions, employees are struggling with the rapidly changing economy in Marfa. Sara Ontiveroz is a Marfa native who makes a living cleaning short-term rentals in Marfa.

Though she’s afloat right now, she’s already getting calls that Airbnb renters are planning to cancel their April reservations. “I hear all these people saying, ‘Hey, we’re staying home,’ and I go, ‘No work, no pay.’”

She understands the cancellations and says she would love it if people just stayed home. “I would love to stay home myself, but how the hell am I going to pay my bills?” Adding to the stress, Ontiveroz says she takes medication for rheumatoid arthritis that leaves her immune system compromised. She’s part of the cohort of people particularly susceptible to coronavirus’ effects.

Ontiveroz is brainstorming other work that she could offer locals: house cleaning, yardwork or deliveries for restaurants that are shifting to to-go only.

“Because I work too hard to keep my bills good. I’m not going to go back. I’m not going to lose my house,” she says with exasperation. “I’m not panicking,” she pauses. “Yet.”

To her, all of this is just another test from God. “Are we going to kill people for toilet paper or say, ‘Here, have half of my toilet paper.’ That’s how I feel we should be: sharing with each other instead of fighting with each other.”

Though the timeline of coronavirus’ impact in Presidio County is a mystery, local officials are already working to share emergency assistance resources with local businesses.

The Workforce Solutions Borderplex, which operates in the tri-county area has released videos with up to date information for employers and employees: https://youtu.be/g6pNutriBos

Tips for employers forced to lay off staff, options for laid off workers and information about getting help from the WSB are all discussed.

“We recognize that many businesses are closing indefinitely and so many people are facing the fact that they are simply out of work. Our job center doors will remain open and we are eager to assist the workforce and any individuals who are worried about loss of wages,” said Leila Melendez, CEO of WSB. “Our staff provides effective job search support and we can help navigate unemployment benefits.”

County Health Authority John Paul Schwartz urged business owners during a Wednesday morning meeting to allow employees to miss work if they are ill to avoid spreading the illness. He added, “If you can pay them while they’re off work, great. It would help the quarantine situation that needs to happen. People are going to have to get creative.”

The U.S. Small Business Administration is offering disaster assistance, but as of press time, businesses in the tri-county are not currently eligible to apply. The SBA provides loans to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can’t be paid because of the disaster’s impact. According to their website, the interest rate is 3.75% for small businesses. The interest rate for nonprofits is 2.75%. Their webpage lists all counties currently eligible, and business owners are encouraged to monitor the page for changes.  https://www.sba.gov/disaster-assistance/coronavirus-covid-19

Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara and Judge Eleazar Cano in Brewster County have declared local disasters this week, which helps open up more access to funding. “For small businesses there are SBA loans, and we’re ready to assist with that,” Guevara told business owners on Wednesday.