Coronavirus spread shifts south toward Presidio

Presidio now has almost all the county's active cases — a reversal of the situation from late June, when there were at least a dozen in Marfa.

PRESIDIO — The City of Presidio had the county’s first confirmed coronavirus case in late May, after a woman in her 40s contracted the virus through travel. But she quarantined, and the border town stayed relatively quiet, with few new cases.

In the meantime, case counts exploded in Marfa and Alpine. The problems started in mid-June, when cases started climbing in the region, hitting 11 in Presidio County and 18 in Brewster County on June 17.

In Presidio County, cases mostly leveled off, only gaining four new cases for the rest of the month. But in Brewster County, where debates over the pros and cons of masks delayed precautions, cases spiked, hitting 136 by July 1.

Since then, cases have continued to climb slowly. At press time, there were 28 confirmed coronavirus cases in Presidio County, 162 in Brewster County and seven in Jeff Davis County, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

But that data — which only counts cases at the county level — hides a worrying trend. While the numbers of confirmed active cases are falling in Brewster County and mostly flatlining in Presidio County, they’re starting to rise in Presidio city.

As always, there’s some important caveats with coronavirus data. With limited testing, it’s hard to know if climbing case counts are a trend or a blip. Case rises have slowed in Marfa and Alpine — but so has testing. After three days of mobile testing sites in the cities last weekend (two days in Marfa, one in Alpine), it’s possible case counts will tick upward again.

And while DSHS provides daily updates on county case counts, it provides more details to the county judge in the form of news releases. But the delivery of those releases to the judge can lag days or even weeks behind when DSHS first confirms a case.

Even when case information is provided to the judge, those releases lack important data — leaving out, for example, the dates that someone’s quarantine starts or ends, or providing a P.O. Box number instead of the resident’s home address, which EMS relies on to know when they are being called out to a COVID-19-infected household.

Still, some trends are clearly visible. At one point in late June, at least a dozen Marfa residents were sick with coronavirus. At the same time, there were just a couple confirmed active cases in Presidio city, even though the border city has more than twice as many people as Marfa.

But now, the situation is reversing. At press time, at least nine of the county’s 11 current confirmed active cases can be tied to Presidio. By contrast, Marfa has just one confirmed active case, according to the latest information available from state and local authorities.

The rises in cases in Presidio city can be tied to a superspreader event, said Dr. John Paul Schwartz, public health authority for the county. In total, he estimates, around seven to nine new cases can be tied to a family gathering, where one woman infected several people.

Schwartz worries some Presidio residents may view themselves as off the grid, far from the climbing case counts in Marfa. “Which they’re not,” he said, “and that’s the frustrating thing. The path to Mexico is a superhighway, practically.”

Irvin Olivas, a city council member, agrees.  “I see it on Facebook,” he said, summarizing the perspective as: “We’re isolated, it’s no big deal.”

“You know what: We’re not isolated,” he added. “Every weekend, we have people coming in from the Permian Basin and elsewhere. They work over there, but they have family here.”

Presidio city officials have taken the coronavirus threat seriously. When the tri-county imposed temporary bans on short-term rentals, Presidio went even further, barring nonessential visitors. Governor Abbott overturned local orders like these before later clarifying that cities and counties could, in fact, require masks at businesses.

Presidio took a less strict stance on masks, charting a path between Marfa (which required masks at businesses) and Alpine (which just required signs indicating whether masks were required). In Presidio, businesses had to get an exemption if they didn’t want to require masks. But it was soon a moot point anyways after Governor Greg Abbott imposed statewide mask requirements.

Still, Mayor John Ferguson said, “We’ve never had that anti-mask thing here.” Instead, he thought locals had been consistently willing to listen to officials when it came to public safety measures.

“Since March, the overall climate — the way people behave in Presidio in regard to coronavirus — has changed very little,” he said. “It seems like people took it very seriously from the beginning.”

Like Olivas, Ferguson agreed that people were coming and going from the city. While Mexican citizens can’t easily get into the United States for nonessential visits, he said Presidians were still visiting relatives in Ojinaga.

In Ojinaga, which has at least 95 cases at press time, coronavirus has upended life. In a post on social media, an Ojinaga news group showed people lining up in front of the Alsuper grocery store, where workers were letting customers in two-at-a-time.

To accurately determine how widespread coronavirus is in Presidio, officials will need more testing. Gary Mitschke, the Presidio County emergency management coordinator, told The Big Bend Sentinel this week that he was trying to arrange more testing in the city.

Meanwhile, tourism in Presidio — already small to begin with — continues to stagnate. Big Bend National Park temporarily closed this month after at least one employee tested positive for coronavirus, eliminating yet another incentive for visitors to come to the region.

Ferguson, the Presidio mayor, thought Presidio was more insulated from those trends than cities like Marfa. “Hardly any business [in Presidio] caters to tourism only,” he said. “Basically, they’re staple businesses.”

Still, some business owners have come to rely on the trickle of visitors. Among them are Jose “Pepe” Acosta, who runs El Changarrito restaurant with his wife.

Acosta normally got some tourist customers — but these days, there are few, if any. “Right now, it’s only us in Presidio,” he said.

Making matters worse, he was paying nearly double prices for supplies like ground beef. And with some parents choosing virtual learning this school year, he didn’t expect there would be a youth crowd this fall, either.

Luckily, Presidio Police and Border Patrol were still stopping by regularly. “Thank God for them,” Acosta said. “They’ve got to eat.”

It’s not all bad news for the region, though. Last week, a report from Workforce Solutions Borderplex showed that the unemployment rate in Presidio County — though still high — was starting to drop.

Just over 17% of the local workforce was unemployed in June, the report said, down from almost 23% in May. But that’s still much higher unemployment than the state and region in general, beating out Texas in general (around 9%) as well as places like El Paso (around 10%).