Gage Hotel sues over emergency hotel closures

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Photo courtesy of Steve Davies via Flickr

MARATHON — The owner of Gage Hotel in Marathon is suing Brewster County over what its lawyers argue are unlawful hotel closures in response to the coronavirus.

In addition to suing Brewster County officials for the hotel closures, the lawsuit also takes aim at the local medical establishment — arguing that an area doctor and member of the local COVID-19 task force “should not be regarded as an expert.”

Brewster County last Monday ordered short-term rentals and hotels in the county to close through April 2 with a few exceptions, including for people who use such rentals as their primary residence.

The order mirrors similar moves adopted across the tri-county, which has no known cases of coronavirus at press time but where officials say proactive measures are necessary to prevent the region’s already taxed healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed. The Big Bend Regional Medical Center, which serves the area’s medical needs, has just 25 beds and two ventilators.

The lawsuit was filed last Wednesday by J.P. Bryan, a Houston-based oilman and owner of the Gage. It names Brewster County and multiple local officials as defendants.

Among them are Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano and all members of the Brewster County Commissioner’s Court except for Ruben Ortega — the only county commissioner to vote against the closures. The lawsuit argues these officials acted outside their legal duties and therefore should be held “personally liable” for lost income at the Gage.

The lawsuit asks for a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction preventing Brewster County officials from temporarily closing the hotel. It also asks for court fees and monetary damages for lost business.

The damages have not yet been determined but are expected to be $100,000 or less, court filings state.

The same day the lawsuit was filed, Judge Roy Ferguson denied the Gage’s request for the temporary restraining order that could keep it in business through April 2. The Gage must stay closed for now, but the legal fight isn’t over just yet.

Bryan’s lawyers declined to comment for this story. Eric Magee, who is representing Brewster County, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Bryan’s lawsuit cites multiple reasons why Brewster’s hotel-closure order should be overturned. First, it argues that an emergency commissioner’s court meeting last Monday to discuss the order was not properly posted.

Bryan’s lawyers did not learn about the meeting, which took place at 2 p.m., “until approximately 9:15 p.m.,” the court filing states. Meanwhile, an amended declaration of the order was reportedly not included on the county website until “an unknown point in time” after that day.

The lawsuit also argues that hotel closures are unnecessary, at least when compared to lost business at the Gage Hotel. Bryan’s lawyers describe the Gage as an “oasis in a remote part of West Texas” and a “principal source of income for Marathon.” And if the Gage was forced to close, its employees might “find other jobs and be permanently lost to the hotel workforce,” they warn.

At the same time, the lawsuit argues that Brewster County has not identified “the emergency or urgent public necessity” to require hotel closures and other emergency actions. The Gage and other local hotels already have “almost no guests at this time,” the lawsuit argues.

The suit notes that Governor Greg Abbott, who earlier this month issued a disaster proclamation over coronavirus, did not require or recommend that hotels be closed. It stresses that there are still no known cases of coronavirus in Brewster County, and there is therefore “no factual or legal basis” for the closures.

The suit also takes aim at Ekta Escovar, a doctor at Big Bend Regional Medical Center and a member of the local COVID-19 task force who has repeatedly spoken with journalists, officials and residents about the dangers of widespread coronavirus infections in the area.

Noting that Escovar is not a epidemiologist and does not specialize in infectious diseases, the lawsuit argues she has “expressed her personal fears…without any scientific support” and “should not be regarded as an expert.”

With or without more lawsuits, there will likely be more disagreements like this in the tri-county area as businesses and officials try to balance concerns for local safety against the region’s tourism-dominated economy.

The region’s remoteness — normally a draw for other reasons — has left some locals and officials worried it will attract visitors looking to escape from New York and other hard-hit areas.

Spring break, which is typically peak tourist season for the Big Bend, was a bust in Marfa this year as many local businesses shuttered or switched to to-go or appointment-only business. Presidio County soon after ordered hotels and bars closed. As of Saturday, the city’s residents are under a shelter-in-place.