City of Presidio extends local disaster declaration

PRESIDIO — At an emergency meeting last Wednesday, Presidio City Council voted unanimously to extend a local disaster declaration for the border city.

Presidio Mayor John Ferguson previously issued a disaster declaration a week earlier, on March 19. That order banned gatherings of more than 250 people and allowed the city to adopt other emergency public health measures, including setting up quarantine stations.

But in order to extend the declaration, Ferguson needed permission from the city council.  “It has to be renewed,” he explained at the start of the meeting.

The latest declaration creates tougher rules and guidelines in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus. Under the new declaration, which went into effect last Wednesday at midnight, Presidio residents are encouraged to stay at home and to also work from home “if feasible.”

The stay-at-home directive includes a few exceptions, including for homeless people (who are exempt but are “strongly urged” to find shelter) and victims of domestic violence and other people living in unsafe situations (who are “permitted and urged to leave their homes” and find safer alternatives). Residents can also still leave their home for essential reasons, including to exercise, shop for food and other necessities, seek medical care or perform an essential task – like caring for a sick relative or working in a “critical infrastructure” job like emergency medical services.

Gatherings of more than 10 people outside a home are prohibited, and people using shared outdoor spaces like parks are asked to maintain a social distance of at least six feet. Residents are “discouraged” from leaving their home for any non-essential reasons.

In the event that any Presidio residents test positive for coronavirus, that person and their family members are “ordered to isolate at home.” So far, though, that rule is just a precaution: at press time on Wednesday, there are still no known cases of coronavirus in the tri-county.

Like Marfa’s shelter-in-place order, which passed last Thursday, the Presidio disaster declaration still allows for members of a household to gather. It prohibits all non-essential visitors to nursing homes, retirement homes and long-term care facilities, unless a visitor is providing critical assistance or doing an end-of-life visitation.

And while the City of Presidio, unlike Presidio County, did not explicitly ban hotels and other short-term rentals, the declaration does define hotels as “residences,” subject to the same stay-at-home guidelines. Non-residents are also “not permitted” to visit Presidio unless for essential reasons — limiting the guests who might use hotels and short-term rentals in the first place.

The declaration authorizes law enforcement to enforce the guidelines. Anyone violating them could face up to 180 days in jail and a fine of $1,000.

And while the declaration doesn’t include a set end-date, Presidio mayor John Ferguson said on social media that city officials would continue meeting “weekly as needed” to reassess the rules and possibly adopt new or stricter ones.

The Presidio order does not include rules found in some other local disaster ordinances, including rules in Marfa closing bars and limiting restaurants to to-go only. But in an interview Tuesday, Mayor John Ferguson pointed that many such restrictions have already been adopted at the state level.

Since Presidio residents seem to be complying with recommendations, city leaders opted for recommendations over a mandatory stay-at-home order, he said.

“I see people staying home, almost without exception,” he said. “I’m not seeing anybody testing the limits [of disaster rules] or engaging in any kind of unsafe behavior.”

During the meeting, City Administrator Joe Portillo also briefed officials on other steps the city is taking as a precaution against coronavirus.

The city has shut down nonessential buildings, including the library and the Presidio Activity Center, he said. Meals for seniors are now delivery-only.

“It’s close,” Portillo said of the virus. He noted there are already known coronavirus cases in El Paso and Midland-Odessa, where he said Presidio residents often go shopping.

He also spoke briefly about the impacts coronavirus could have on Presidio’s finances. Even before coronavirus, the city was tight on cash.

“We don’t have reserves,” he said. “We’re probably more susceptible than most [cities] when it comes to finances.”

Separately, the Presidio City Council meeting also voted unanimously to postpone Presidio municipal elections from May 2 until November 3.

“This is a pretty common sense thing,” Mayor John Ferguson said at the meeting. “We don’t want people getting together in large numbers to go vote.” Any council members up for reelection will serve until November.