What’s “essential” business? It’s a gray area

TRI-COUNTY — By ordering hotels and other businesses closed before the Big Bend has its first coronavirus case, officials in the tri-county have adopted some of the strongest precautions against the deadly new disease.

But as local officials in Texas and around the country formulate orders aimed at protecting their own communities, those efforts may be hampered by guidance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Texas state leaders — both of which have classified a wide swath of the workforce as “essential.”

The DHS list of essential workers is 10 pages long and includes everything from call centers and nearly all of the petroleum industry to “transportation and logistics.” And while that last category may sound like a no-brainer, it’s why a Blue Origin facility in Van Horn received “mission essential designation” to test launch a rocket designed for “suborbital space tourism.”

Texas officials are using this same list, “plus religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship,” according to an executive order from Governor Greg Abbott. The Texas rules also classify a few other categories of activity as essential, including “hunting or fishing.” Abbott said he wants to ensure that “local officials do not impose restrictions inconsistent with this order.”

That has put local officials on shakier ground as they try to formulate rules for their own communities. In addition to public safety, they must also worry about lawsuits and other legal issues.

“I would be real hesitant for us to start defining ‘essential services’ a lot more restrictive than the federal government,” said John Washburn, Marfa city manager. “At the end of the day, I’ve got to protect the taxpayer’s purse.”

After reviewing federal and state guidelines as well as other local orders — and finding, as Washburn put, that there is “not a lot of clear guidance” — Marfa city leaders decided to allow businesses to maintain “minimum basic operations” in their shelter-in-place order last month.  That term, he said, encompasses everything from groundskeeping and pool-repair work to room-cleaning at hotels — even though hotels currently can’t take in tourists or other nonessential visitors, per the order.

Washburn says he’s been “dismayed” by the lack of guidelines coming from state and federal leaders, but said Marfa officials need to tread carefully when “there’s not a real clear playbook” on how to respond to pandemics.

“I don’t want somebody coming to me saying, ‘You harmed our business,’” Washburn added. “I don’t want to come out the other side [of the coronavirus pandemic] with a bunch of lawsuits.”

But Washburn still has his own opinions. “I wish everybody would just go home,” he said.