Commissioners close hotels until April 3 in digital meeting

Presidio County held their first ever socially-distanced commissioners court on Monday. The court spread out, the audience teleconferenced in and one commissioner joined via video from her self-quarantine at home. Attendees used software to provide public comments and address commissioners via video.

PRESIDIO COUNTY — Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara welcomed residents and officials on Monday to the county’s first ever digital commissioners court. A self-quarantined Commissioner Brenda Bentley joined the call from her home, while commissioners Buddy Knight, Eloy Aranda and Jose Cabezuela appeared on screen with Judge Guevara from the County Annex in Presidio, sitting feet apart to keep their distance during the looming threat of coronavirus.

Commissioners voted unanimously to keep hotels, short term rentals and RV parks closed until April 3, an effort that Presidio County, Brewster County and Jeff Davis County had decided to take on together.

“We’re now finding out the true meaning of viral, and it is even faster than we can imagine,” Guevara told commissioners at the top of the meeting. Last week, Guevara announced a local disaster in Presidio County, opening the county up for certain disaster funding, while also expanding the executive powers of the judge. Jeff Davis and Brewster County judges Kerith Sproul-Hurley and Eleazar Cano did the same.

“Cooperating together, we’ve all decided to stay together in pursuit of stopping the spread of this virus. Not only to be concerned with ‘our town’ but with the whole area,” Guevara said.

During the meeting, Presidio EMS Director Malynda Richardson, who joined the online video conference call through the application “Zoom,” told commissioners that after speaking with hospital staff, “The current containment strategy is helping, but we probably need to be more proactive to ‘flatten the curve.’”

Flattening the curve is the idea that by slowing the spread of the coronavirus through cleanliness and avoiding social contact, the hospitals are less likely to be flooded with patients all at once. With a 25-bed hospital and only two ventilators, Big Bend Regional Medical Center could be quickly overwhelmed if coronavirus goes viral in the Big Bend. In Italy the curve was not flattened, and many hospitals were forced to deny care to people infected with the virus, simply because there was no equipment or workers to care for them.

The commissioners skipped their usual businesses to allow dialed-in residents to speak about the coronavirus emergency declaration. Flavin Judd, calling from New York, warned commissioners they were in a privileged position to be able to make decisions before the virus had arrived. New York has rocketed to over 26,000 cases this week. “I want to encourage my friends and family in Presidio County to do more than the states are telling you, because they are not doing enough,” he said.

The tri-counties are the first Texas localities to order hotel closures. Thus far, Governor Greg Abbott has taken a conservative approach to limiting activities, deferring to local officials to make decisions limiting schools, restaurants, bars and gatherings, only to later announce restrictions from the state.

The hotel closures proposed exempted guests who had established the rental unit as their primary place of residence, such as any hotel staff living on premise or full-time RV park residents.

County attorney Rod Ponton told commissioners he spoke with Justin Bragiel from the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association, a hotel lobbying group. He believed hotels are essential critical infrastructure, that those using hotels or RV parks as primary residences would have to leave, and that when people become sick, they should be using hotels to quarantine themselves.

Ponton told commissioners, “On the one hand you may think, ‘Wow, we’re being safer than anyone else. On the other hand, you could look at [it as] we’re beyond what the federal government allows and beyond what the state government allows.” He warned against going “too far.”

As officials discussed, a new facet of commissioners court emerged, unique to the newly online platform for meetings. Attendees, normally silent unless called on to speak or ask questions during an agenda item, were conversing in the Zoom comments section. Residents sounded off, and while the commissioners in Presidio didn’t see all of the conversation, Bentley was reading comments and replying to the audience in Zoom, and resident Shelley Bernstein read some aloud to commissioners.

From Judge [David] Beebe to Everyone: (11:01 AM)
 Established primary residences are exempted in Judge’s decree. 
Whom is Ponton representing here?

From Flavin Judd to Everyone: (11:02 AM) 
If you keep hotels open to public you will get an influx of virus bearing visitors

From Brenda Bentley to Everyone: (11:03 AM) 
I don’t want to take my exposure to those serving in hotels.  It isn’t right to take my medical illness to them.

Judge Guevara clarified that she had the power to order hotels to reopen for other uses, as Ponton and others expressed that extra lodging could be necessary if the county needs more emergency responders, nurses or infrastructure if coronavirus overwhelmed the hospital completely.

Bernstein pointed out to commissioners that while no counties in Texas had closed hotels yet, Miami-Dade County had ordered hotels to close this week because of Miami’s status as a popular tourist destination.

From Malynda Richardson to Everyone: (11:05 AM) 
I am concerned that keeping hotels completely open will attract people from areas with higher infection rates and contribute to spread of the disease to our communities.

“The government’s actions are taking private property. Do we want to get sued for closing beyond what’s allowed by the federal and state government?” Ponton asked.

From Neil Chavigny to Everyone: (11:07 AM)
 Counties sometime get sued for doing the right thing. That is the cost [of] doing business.

From Brenda Bentley to Everyone: (11:08 AM) 
I agree Neil.  If we can prevent one death, we’ve done the right thing at any cost

From Judge Beebe to Everyone: (11:10 AM)
 The Hotel/Motel lobbying group should not ever determine what we do as an independent governing body. Ever.

Bentley turned on her microphone and told her fellow commissioners, “I think risking a lawsuit here is worth it. If we can save one person…we can’t afford to go there, we can’t. I know that it’s hard to take this on, but we’ve gotta do it now or never.”

Aranda added, “I think our responsibility is the people of Presidio County.”

County Emergency Management Coordinator Gary Mitschke agreed, saying, “I think we would be fools to consider financial gain over human lives at this point. I think it’s just, it’s gonna hurt all of us financially in the county. But I think at this stage of the game it’s foolish to even consider financial gain right now when we’re talking potential of human lives in Presidio County.”

Guevara said she wanted to close hotels because she “was observing in the past two weeks how many tourists there were in Marfa, no matter what. As bad as things were getting there were still many tourists.”

“This is gonna hurt the hotels and all the industry,” Guevara told commissioners. “But if we just do it for a short period of time, it’ll be a way to corral the virus out.”

“[This virus] is not like anything else ever before. Ever, ever, ever before. It’s coming here. Our priority should be: What are we going to do to get ready for that?” Guevara said. “There’s a lot to do. We have to picture the worst scenario.”

Guevara asked, “Our next and only concern is what are we doing next? The worst is coming, we need to get prepared for the worst.”

From Flavin Judd to Everyone: (11:20 AM)
 Alpine has 2 ventilators. El Paso not that much more. They will all be full within weeks.

“Let’s take the first step and do it,” Commissioner Aranda said. Bentley motioned to approve the emergency declaration. Cabezuela seconded, and the motion carried unanimously.

By Tuesday, J.P. Bryan, owner of the Gage Hotel in Marathon, had filed a lawsuit against neighboring Brewster County for its closure of hotels.