Op Ed: Stay Home, Marfa’s Closed: An Open Letter to the Houston Chronicle

The Big Bend Region of our state is a place like no other. The home of friendly locals, unending solitude, and small-town life for a few thousand residents, it is a true gem of our state. I am fortunate to call this place home, born and raised in Marfa before moving to El Paso for work a few years ago. I still hold this place close to my heart and it’s oft at the forefront of decisions I make in my work as a state legislative employee.

Marfa is home to around 1,800 people, nestled on a high plateau in the northern Chihuahuan Desert. It’s where my family lives, where I graduated from high school (Go Shorthorns!), and the birthplace of Tex-Mex. Search the web for the “art capital of Texas,” and you’re greeted by a rustic “Welcome to Marfa” billboard, plopped on the roadside in the middle of the desert. It’s where you can check out Donald Judd’s 15 Untitled Works in Concrete or lounge in a hammock grove at El Cosmico. It’s one of the most welcoming places I know, except maybe right now.

A now-deleted March 18 article published by the Houston Chronicle, Where to go ‘glamping’ across Texas, opened with this line, “Self quarantine? No problem: Texas has its share of upscale, high-end hotels and opulent, sprawling ranches.” One of the glamping options, featured in the first photo in the article, was El Cosmico, a swanky hotel and campground on the south edge of town.

Almost anybody who calls this part of the state home will probably tell you that people flocking to the Big Bend during a worldwide health crisis is the antithesis of “no problem”. Inviting people to visit these remote areas of the state to self-quarantine in opulence was grossly misguided, bordering blatant incompetence.

The tri-county area of the Big Bend, including Brewster, Jeff Davis, and Presidio counties, is constantly stretched thin for resources, especially in the medical field. Each town has no more than a couple of ambulances, staffed by dedicated medical professionals who provide excellent care in some of the roughest country in the state.

The area’s only hospital, Big Bend Regional Medical Center, is a 25-bed Level IV Trauma Center, meaning they are equipped to shore up critical patients before sending them on to more advanced care, usually by helicopter to El Paso or Odessa. They have limited access to critical infrastructure, but they do everything they can for the residents of these communities. The last thing this hospital needs right now is hoards of tourists coming to the region and running amuck, potentially bringing with them COVID-19. As we’ve already seen with this pandemic, it does not take much for things to very quickly take a turn for the worst.

Tourism is the livelihood for so many businesses in the Big Bend. Any other time, you’d be welcomed with a friendly smile, a wave as you drive past a local resident, delicious food, and a sky as wide as forever. There is no doubt the drop in visitors will deal a significant blow to the local economy. But, the people of the Big Bend are resilient, a near-requirement to live in this part of the world. Instead of visiting, support these businesses by shopping their products online, buying a gift certificate you can use when this is all over, and most importantly, staying put.

A road trip to these communities is not only tempting your own fate, but also the fate of so many who already live on the brink of the unthinkable in the event of a mass crisis. Push your luck with a visit to this remote land, and you’ve suddenly jeopardized the lives of my family, my friends, mi gente.

As for the Houston Chronicle, the health and wellbeing of all Texans, whether Houstonians or Marfans, should be at the forefront of every article you publish right now. This lapse in journalistic judgment could have proven a catastrophe were it not for local leaders who have already taken difficult but necessary steps to protect their constituents, putting a week-long moratorium on hotel and vacation rentals and requiring delivery-only service at local restaurants, among other changes.

Do not let the temptation of self-quarantine in remote West Texas overtake your better judgment. The Big Bend isn’t going anywhere. Frankly, the region will fare better in the long run if its residents can socially distance adequately, without having to worry about restless spring breakers kicking off a pandemic that could spread like wildfire, something the people of West Texas are all too familiar with. The bottom line: Stay home, Marfa is closed.