With no big box stores or USPS delivery, area post offices stay busy in pandemic

MARFA — Mail volume is down across the country, the United States Postal Service reported last week. But at the post office in Marfa, workers are staying as busy as ever.

Personal mail like letters and postcards have “dropped off a bit,” said Julio Medina, a window clerk. But locals are still relying on mail as much as ever to send and receive household items, from medicines and Amazon purchases to care packages to and from friends and family elsewhere.

Across the country, postal workers have been deemed “essential” employees who must report to work. And in few places are they more essential than the tri-county region, where mail is how many residents pick up essential household goods. With the nearest big box stores in El Paso and Midland-Odessa, tri-county residents have long relied on mail to get necessities like furniture and other supplies.

“That’s the way it is all the time here,” said Marfa Postmaster Belen Aguilar. People get everything from pet food to toilet paper online, she said — and a pandemic hasn’t stopped those trends.

But while mail in the tri-county region hasn’t slowed for the pandemic, the pandemic poses other risks to the local mail system. Unlike in major cities, which have mail delivery, residents in Marfa, Presidio and elsewhere in the region must physically gather at the post office to pick up and send mail.

Observers have worried that other essential services like grocery stores, pharmacies and transportation hubs could act as vectors for coronavirus. In a time when many Americans are practicing social distancing, places like grocery stores are some of the only public places where people still gather.

And in Marfa, more than other places, that’s also true of the post office.

“I’m not scared,” said Medina, the window clerk. “But I am concerned.”

USPS could not immediately provide statistics on what proportion of the country does not have mail delivery.

Becky Hernandez, a USPS spokesperson, stressed that USPS has developed guidance for post offices — and not just delivery workers. Those include requirements that workers stay six feet apart and regularly sanitize workspaces, according to a statement from USPS.

“I think Marfa’s doing good in terms of keeping distance and covering” their faces, said Aguilar, the postmaster. “I don’t see any problems at all.”

Medina agrees. The post office has adopted some new measures, from a hand-sanitizer station outside to a sign asking for a limit of two customers in the lobby at a time. That latter rule is mostly being followed, he said.

Medina is also taking his own precautions. He tries not to chitchat with customers — even the regulars. He lets people set their IDs and mail slips on the counter, rather than picking them up.

“When people lean into the counter, I step back,” he said. “That kind of stuff.” Still, he adds: “There’s only so much you can do.”

Beyond Marfa, USPS is also experiencing other headaches.

First, there’s the concern that people could potentially catch coronavirus through surfaces, like a piece of mail.

USPS, FedEx and UPS all say no, and scientists and health officials say there are no known cases of coronavirus through “smear” transmission (indirect contact with a contaminated surface) versus “droplet” transmission (direct contact with an infected person). But researchers are just beginning to learn about the new coronavirus disease, and stories like that of the Princess Cruise ship — where health officials found live virus weeks after passengers had deboarded — have done little to dampen fears.

Then, there’s the declining mail. Last week, USPS said mail volume was down 30 percent across the country. It could drop 50 percent by July, the post service said.

USPS has asked lawmakers for an $89 billion bailout. And in a stark news release on Friday, Megan Brennan, the postmaster general, warned that decreasing mail business during the pandemic is “threatening our ability to operate.” But some politicians have so far balked at the idea of helping out the mail service, and The Washington Post reported the Trump administration threatened to veto any relief bill that included USPS.

But with all the bad news, there has been an outpouring of support for the essential government workers. That includes everything from well-meaning social media posts to fundraisers on the website GoFundMe.

And at the Marfa Post Office, Postmaster Aguilar said an anonymous do-gooder recently left a thank-you note by the office’s back door.

“Thank you to whoever left the note,” she said, “That was really sweet.”