As coronavirus crisis drags on, businesses, art foundations imagine reopening

“People are over it,” one business owner said of lockdowns. “Well, coronavirus isn’t over us.”

MARFA — As tourists have slowly returned to Marfa, the Chinati Foundation has been wondering what it will look like to welcome them back. Last week, the foundation invited select local guests to help in “testing our reopening scenario,” as Executive Director Jenny Moore put it in a phone interview on Monday.

Chinati Foundation has been consulting with local health experts and has no set date to reopen, Moore said. But the group knows it has to reopen eventually and is already developing a range of safety measures, from requiring face masks to closing restrooms.

Last Friday, some local guests got to see what that looked like. They booked their visits online, registering particular time slots to conform with social distancing. Buildings were closed, and gone were the guided tours. Instead, Moore said they’ve developed new signage, making it a self-guided tour.

Chinati Foundation is also considering a phased reopening by, for example, opening the grounds before they open buildings. For Moore, the trial run was about helping the foundation “walk through the process as we move towards an opening date.”

“This is very much a process,” she added. “We’re moving slowly, with safety first.”

Not all Marfans have to grapple with the logistics of opening a sprawling art destination. But Moore’s situation mirrors that of business owners across the tri-county as they grapple with reopening in a state that chose a do-it-yourself approach over strict statewide rules and long lockdowns.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott started a phased reopening of Texas in late April — a move that gave the state one of the shortest lockdown orders in the country, at well under a month. Many businesses were allowed to start reopening again by May 1. At the same time, Abbott also overturned local decisions to take precautions, rejecting face mask requirements in cities from Presidio to Houston and nixing Presidio County’s temporary ban on short-term rentals.

In a news conference on the reopening, Abbott described his rules as “permission to open — not a requirement.” But, especially when coupled with the overturning of local rules, some Marfans felt like the state was passing the buck to them.

“We have had lack of leadership from the state and nationally,” said Buck Johnston, a city council member and co-owner of Wrong Marfa who is relying on her own judgement as she navigates the state reopening process. “People are kind of confused about what the right thing is to do. I wish we had more direction.”

With her dual role as a public official, Johnston felt a need to be extra cautious. “Being on council, I need to set an example,” she said.

Last month, Johnston started organizing public meetings on Zoom to discuss the process of reopening businesses. The meetings were open to everyone but primarily catered to business owners who wanted to discuss what protocols would protect both customers and businesses. A wide range of local businesses soon joined, from shops and art galleries to (full disclosure) The Sentinel.

“They’ve been really supportive,” Johnston said of the calls. Not only did they help businesses coordinate on best practices, but they served as outlets for other businesspeople who were struggling with these same logistical and ethical challenges in a town that runs on tourism and the service industry.

“We made sure, when we started these meetings, that there was no judgement about reopening,” Johnston said. “People have to make money. We can’t be shaming each other.”

Among the participants in Johnston’s Zoom meetings was Kate Calder, the new owner of Communitie Marfa. Previously an employee at the store, Calder bought the business in May.

As a new business owner, Calder was wary about how to proceed with reopening. On one hand, since she didn’t own Communitie Marfa before the coronavirus crisis, she says she didn’t qualify for some of the emergency loans and payouts given to more established businesses. “Being the owner, I have a lot of bills to pay,” she said. “This is my livelihood.”

On the other hand, Calder loves Marfa and didn’t want to do anything that might harm it. “The numbers are going the wrong direction right now,” she said of the state’s case count. And like Johnston, she felt frustrated with the lack of good information coming from state and federal leaders — as well as what she felt was a growing desire across the state and country to forget about coronavirus and move on.

“People are over it,” she said of the crisis. “They’re setting it aside. Well, coronavirus isn’t over us.”

For both Calder and Johnston, the Zoom calls helped them get a sense of protocols and best practices that left them feeling safer about attempting a reopening. “It started as a planning session, but it became more of a feedback session,” Calder said. Businesses that had reopened shared their input with those that hadn’t.

Calder opened a couple weeks ago, on Memorial Day weekend. Communitie Marfa is now appointment-only, and Calder offers sanitizer and face coverings to guests.

Johnston, meanwhile, is planning to reopen this weekend. She’ll be adopting protocols similar to Calder’s, including requiring face coverings. “I even considered turnstiles,” she said with a laugh.

It remains to be seen when Marfa will open more fully, or whether the return of tourists and semi-normalcy will lead to more case spikes in the region. For business owners forced to make these tough decisions, it hasn’t been easy.

“I still don’t know if it’s necessarily safe that our town has reopened,” Johnston said.

Other business owners would argue it isn’t. And that’s perhaps particularly true for businesses like restaurants, whose business models focus on eating and social interactions. Nearly all of Marfa’s restaurants are still to-go only or have temporarily closed altogether, like Stellina and Capri.

Krista Steinhauer, owner at Stellina, was perhaps the first business owner in the tri-county to shut down as a precaution against coronavirus. Within days, businesses across Marfa followed her lead.

In an interview Tuesday, Steinhauer still didn’t feel comfortable putting any timeline on her reopening. She pointed to a number of factors, from Texas’s still-rising case counts to the fact that “there’s kind of a two week lag time of exposure and recorded cases,” as people who became infected with coronavirus weeks ago start to show symptoms and await test results.

Steinhauer didn’t want to speak in detail about her plans for Stellina’s future. But she was adamant about one fact: “It’s not going to be a full-service restaurant anytime soon.”

“I wish everybody would agree that eating a nice meal with full service is not important right now,” she added. “There are more important things going on.”

After the interview, Steinhauer shared a news article describing how some Austin restaurants were once again shuttering, as employees came down with coronavirus.

“This is going to keep happening,” she wrote. “Why gear up to open, which is no small task, only to shut down again?”

For Moore, the Chinati director, the last few months have represented “the challenge of making really difficult decisions” as locals grapple with an unprecedented pandemic and what that means for the local tourist industry.

“We were able to en masse close down very quickly, in service of public safety and the public at large,” she said. “It’s clearly a much more complicated process to reopen.”