‘We’re dispensable’: Presidio city leaders slam Texas ‘reopening’

PRESIDIO — City leaders in Presidio have spent weeks formulating guidance designed to keep their constituents safe from the coronavirus, from limiting nonessential visitors to requiring face coverings for employees and shoppers at stores. But with Governor Greg Abbott’s decision last week to overrule local emergency orders as part of his plan to “reopen” Texas, all those plans and discussions went out the window.

And when city leaders met virtually on Wednesday to discuss their next moves, some city officials could barely contain their frustration and anger.

“We’re going to be casualties of war,” City Councilman Antonio Manriquez said during the meeting. “That’s what the governor said: We’re old, we’re dispensable.”

Alcee Tavarez, mayor pro tem for the border city, likewise said that the message of Governor Abbott’s order was that state leadership “doesn’t give a crap about you.”

Tavarez said that Abbott was listening to “knuckleheads” who opposed stay-at-home orders over the vast majority of Texans who support such measures. Seventy-seven percent of Texans are in favor of stay-at-home restrictions, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll from last week.

“You’ve got a governor that’s listening to the 20 percent instead of the 80 percent he should be listening to,” Tavarez said. “You can put that in the record. I don’t give a crap. That’s how strongly I feel.”

The strongest criticism during the meeting came from Manriquez and Tavarez, who noted that, as older people, they face an increased risk of death or serious illness from coronavirus.

But those observations could just as easily apply to their constituents as well. Almost 25 percent of Presidio city residents are over the age of 65, according to census data. Meanwhile, around 40 percent of the city lives below the poverty line — another risk factor for coronavirus, in part because low-income people are less likely to have health insurance and more likely to have other health issues.

Other Presidio city leaders weren’t as noticeably frustrated. But virtually all expressed displeasure with Governor Abbott’s new rules — if also resignation.

“We did what was right,” Councilman Irvin Olivas said of Presidio’s local emergency rules. Councilman Sam Carrasco likewise said Presidio’s measures were “really done in good faith” but added: “We do need to follow the governor’s lead.”

“I totally agree with all of you,” Rogelio Zubia told his frustrated fellow councilmembers. “However, [Governor Abbott’s reopening order] was a top-down decision.”

“If we continue to focus on what we think should happen, we’re just going to go crazy,” he added. “We just have to move on.”

The rest of the meeting had a feeling of hopelessness to it, as city leaders tried to brainstorm ways to protect Presidio from coronavirus without running afoul of Governor Abbott’s orders. Mayor pro tem Tavarez pondered whether “No shirt, no shoes, no service” signs could instead be changed to “No shoes, no shirt, no mask, you can’t come into the store.”

No, said City Attorney Rod Ponton. That call would be left up to individual stores.

“That’s a private decision,” Ponton said. “Y’all are dealing with a public decision, as a council.”

After determining that Abbott’s order had left them with few options — the new rules even prevent cities from fining people for not wearing face-coverings — city leaders instead discussed community-based mitigation efforts, including not shopping at stores that didn’t take precautions.

“For those of us who want to protect ourselves and our families, we can vote with our wallets,” said Mayor John Ferguson. “That doesn’t have to come in the form of the law.”

In the end, Presidio officials decided to circulate the state’s guidance to businesses but not to enact an additional emergency order, instead deferring to the state’s guidelines.

They briefly considered holding their next meeting in-person but decided against it. Councilman Irvin Olivas said holding a virtual meeting would better “get the message out to everybody” that “we are taking this seriously.”

And if the meeting is held in person, some city council members said they won’t attend.

“I will not be attending the meeting,” Tavarez said of the proposed in-person council meeting. “I’m sorry — but I like living.”