Essential workers keep Marfa running

Even though the Marfa ISD is temporarily closed because of the Coronavirus, Nancy Garcia and Juanita Quintanar pass out breakfast and lunch on Tuesday morning outside of the MISD cafeteria. MISD provides meals, weekdays, to all children 18 years and younger. Photo by Maisie Crow

MARFA — While the regular hustle and bustle of Marfa has slowed, many locals are still clocking into work as part of the essential workforce, making sure residents can access basic necessities like food, mail, banking and medicine.

Essential workers are exempt from the governments’ various social-distancing and stay-at-home orders, and as such, are at a higher risk for contracting the coronavirus. Though the disease has yet to reach the area, workers are doing their best to deliver services while protecting themselves.

On Tuesday morning, Marfa ISD’s lunch ladies were wrapping up their daily production of breakfasts and lunches. Even with the schools’ closures, MISD has made sure students are able to access the meals families have come to rely on.

“We’re trying to reach as many children as possible,” lunch lady Armida Villarreal says. The school has set up a handful of distribution locations across the city in order to make meals accessible. Along with Mayra Torres, Nancy Garcia and Juanita Quintana, Villareal has been preparing food and handing out meals to students and parents since the closure.

Torres says they are making 150 meals Monday through Wednesday, and nearly 200 on Thursdays and Fridays. The end of the week gets busy when parents are grabbing food for kids as they come to the school to drop off their student’s assignments.

“Three days a week we make a deli sandwich, ham and cheese, with chips, fruit, and more, and two days its peanut butter and jelly,” Torres says. Breakfast varies, with muffins, cereal bars and other options.

Villarreal has been a lunch lady for 26 years, including ten years in Marfa. The Marfa native says that since coronavirus precautions hit Marfa, “We have shorter hours now, we don’t come in for eight hours. But we manage to get everything done.” Soon they may switch to Monday through Thursday and prepare Friday’s meals ahead of time. She says their salaries are the same though, and that Aguero is looking into hazard pay for the workers.

Villareal says, speaking for herself, she’s afraid of the virus. “I have health issues, pre-existing issues, and I’d hate to come down with it. I’d hate for anyone to come down with it.” The workers are wearing their usual gloves and washing their hands. Still, they see hundreds of parents each day at meal pickup.

“I miss all the kiddos, seeing the little ones. You get so used to seeing them come through the line,” Villareal says. “Hopefully all of this will pass soon, but I don’t know if we’ll be seeing them again, this thing may go through until the end of May. We do miss them.”

Across town, Bob Fast, owner of Prescription Shop Marfa, says that as a one-man operation, not a lot has changed in terms of hours or employee adjustments. Fast is still handing out prescriptions as the only pharmacy in town, and trying to protect himself and others where possible.

“I have been more conscientious about cleaning around here, floors, counters, and I spend a lot of time on the CDC website,” he says. One simple change: “I started keeping my door propped open.” Before that, it was one place that every customer was touching.

“I feel a lot better knowing there’s no reported cases of that in our area. If I was working a corner drug store in New York, I’d probably be doing more drastic steps. Keeping my doors locked, doing package drop-offs in the parking lot. At this point, I’m being cautious and careful but, it’s comforting to know it’s not here yet.”

As it is, Fast is trying to stay at a distance from customers, and says, “The people of Marfa have been really good at that themselves.” Customers are waiting outside to limit the number of people in the store at the same time.

After hearing concerns, Fast is also keeping a slightly larger back-stock of prescriptions, in case drug shortages hit. He’s also trying to help those with financial hardship when possible, acknowledging the number of Marfa locals who have lost work during this time.

Should coronavirus arrive, Fast says he will start delivering prescriptions when needed. A few locals have even offered to provide delivery from his shop as a free service. “The ladies that offered won’t let me pay them, they want to do it as a community service,” Fast says. “It’s been amazing to see people like that step up and want to help out.”

Across the country, grocery store employees have been celebrated as frontline workers during the virus. But many have also contracted the contagious virus that leads to COVID-19, and some have lost their lives.

Locally, Porter’s grocery store in Marfa is hoping to protect workers by deep cleaning, limiting the number of customers in the store to around 10 percent occupancy and hanging signage to remind customers to keep their distance.

The company also decided to offer raises during the virus. Starting on March 17, the company gave all hourly employees a temporary $2 per hour raise and all salaried workers a $100 per week raise, “as a token of our gratitude for the efforts they are giving,” the company posted on social media. “We hope that all of our Team Members know that they are crucial, and we appreciate them beyond what words can express.”

Trae Porter of the regional grocery franchise says the raises were a sign of appreciation. “We love our people,” he says. “We knew how busy we were and how much harder they were working, so we were trying to get ahead of the curve a little bit and just let them know that we know this is not normal times, and let them know that we do appreciate them.”

Though coronavirus hasn’t reached Marfa, the company has had employees in their Andrews store impacted by the virus. “For us, we lean heavily on our local health departments and let them tell us what they want from us. We generally have been going beyond what they’ve asked us to do,” Porter says.

The proprietor says that after discovering an employee was impacted by coronavirus, the store cooperated with the health department, “getting schedules together, letting people that might have been exposed be contacted.”

“We had a couple folks, more than one for sure, and we just cleared the area and immediately sanitized it again. The people who were sick hadn’t been in in a couple days, but it’s one of those deals where you do what you can. We’re sanitizing constantly, doing deep cleans at night, everything you can for something that’s invisible,” Porter says.

“We’re trying to make the best decision that we can, and gosh, sometimes we may be wrong, but I can assure you that everything we’re doing comes from a place of trying to make sure people are safe,” says Porter. “There’s not a business in the world that’s worth more than a person, and we desperately want to try to keep our people safe.”