April 15, 2020 429 PM
FAR WEST TEXAS — In the coronavirus epicenter of Wuhan, Chinese New Year festivities in January helped spread the disease throughout the city, within China and later across the rest of the world. As coronavirus infections pick up speed across North America, some experts feared Easter could do the same.
Churches across Texas opened their doors for church services over the Easter weekend. But in Far West Texas and other border regions, the Easter holidays brought concerns not just of people gathering together to pray and celebrate, but of increased travel.
That’s because Easter is one of the busiest travel times in Latino communities, on par with Thanksgiving. A Nielsen survey in 2013 found that almost half of Latinos in the United States considered the week one of the “main” holidays for them and their family.
Officials at the Presidio-Ojinaga Port of Entry said that travel dropped off 69 percent this Easter weekend compared to last year. That’s on par with figures nationwide, with Customs and Border Protection reporting that passenger travel is down 72 percent and pedestrian travel down 83 percent.
But even with those decreased travel numbers, officials in both border cities still fear the holiday could act as a vector for the coronavirus, as Mexican residents travel through Presidio to visit family in El Paso and Midland-Odessa and vice versa.
Adding to concerns is the fact that El Paso and Midland-Odessa have growing case counts, while smaller towns and rural areas throughout the region do not. Likewise, Ojinaga has at least one coronavirus case.
The U.S.-Mexico border closed to most nonessential travel last month — though people can still cross to visit family. Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also put out an “emphatic call” to Easter travelers to “postpone visits.”
Mexican nationals who travel abroad could find it “extremely complicated” to return to Mexico during the pandemic, a news release from the agency warned.
Mexican officials reportedly took out radio public-advisories in the Permian Basin, warning Mexican nationals about the dangers of Easter travel during the coronavirus. In Ojinaga, Mayor C. Martin Sánchez Valles recommended that locals stay home for the holidays and stressed that no one was allowed to gather and celebrate in the city.
Meanwhile in Presidio, Mayor John Ferguson has used his social media platform to encourage safe choices during coronavirus — discouraging holiday travel. In one post, he noted that Presidio was 85 miles from the Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine.
“Please take heed and avoid traveling down here during Easter,” he wrote. “We’re counting on you to help us out.”
In the Big Bend region, some church leaders took precautions this Easter. Reverend Mike Wallens in Marfa switched church activities to Facebook Live and Zoom, and Father Miguel “Mike” Alcuino in Presidio canceled church services altogether. But those measures go beyond legal requirements.
Several states, including the coronavirus hotspot of New York, have included religious exemptions for stay-at-home orders. That list includes Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott has declared religious services and houses of worship to be “essential.”
Even in cases where church gatherings aren’t allowed or have restrictions, some church leaders are still defying orders. In Louisiana, one pastor is facing at least six misdemeanors for continuing to hold church gatherings in violation of social-distancing rules.
That pastor, Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, has explained his actions by noting that the president “is not my God.” A video by The Washington Post earlier this month showed the church was still running bus shuttle services for poor and elderly congregants.
The Center for American Progress, a liberal nonprofit, has warned that Easter festivities and travel in the United States could worsen the pandemic. And the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University in Atlanta has stressed that “religious freedom must take a backseat” to public safety to prevent the religious holiday from becoming an incubator for the deadly new disease.
In an interview on Monday, Ferguson said he saw reduced travel over the Easter weekend. But that was less true for the start of the Holy Week on Palm Sunday weekend, he said, when he saw a photo of long lines.
“It wasn’t really, really big,” he said of the line at the weekend before last. “But it was big enough that people were taking pictures.”
Overall, Ferguson thinks locals on both sides of the border have “kind of gotten the message” about the risks of coronavirus. He credits public outreach efforts by officials in Presidio and Mexico.
In Presidio itself, though, he said there were more people out and about over the Easter weekend than he would have liked. “There were some complaints about people riding their Razor [scooters],” he said. “Typical Easter-type activities.”
Presidio residents have been “extremely nervous about large numbers of people coming into town” over the Easter Holy Week, Ferguson said. Some have even called on him to take extra measures, including setting up a secondary checkpoint to screen anyone coming into the country.
Ferguson said those were “all very reasonable concerns” but that, as the mayor of a cash-strapped border town, there is a limit to what he and other local officials can do.
“My response — which I think is the best advice we can offer — is [for residents] to just try to stay home as much as you can,” he said. “There’s not a lot of tools in our toolchest to combat this, other than staying home.”
Going forward, Ferguson’s biggest concern is that people will stop social distancing, either because they’re tired of the restrictions or because they incorrectly believe they’re safe. “You start to see a little bit of good news, and people start getting lax,” he said.
At press time on Wednesday, the tri-county still has no known coronavirus cases, but with an incubation period of up to 14 days for the disease, it could be late April or early May before officials know if precautions during Easter Holy Week kept coronavirus away.