Big Bend residents get into the mask-wearing groove

Mimi Simpson sees travelers from across the Big Bend and beyond at her job at Uncle’s, a gas station and convenience store in Marfa. With employer-provided masks, protective plexiglass and customers wearing masks more often than not, Simpson said she feels safe from the virus. Photo by Abbie Perrault

THE BIG BEND – Run into five Big Bend residents on the street these days and chances are pretty good that all of them are wearing a mask, according to a new data set by Dynata, a global data and surveying firm, commissioned by the New York Times.

While parts of Texas have struggled to rise to the occasion of combatting the viral coronavirus pandemic, the Big Bend appears on the data map as a dark purple hot spot of mask-wearing. Come across a Marfan or Presidian lately? There’s a 78% chance that person is “always” wearing a mask in public when they expect to come within six feet of another person.

“We are not defenseless against COVID-19,” the CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield said recently. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”

Across the Big Bend, residents are ready to protect themselves and each other, and have stepped up to the challenge. From restaurants and recreation to feed stores and a saddlery, those living, working and adventuring in the Big Bend are putting on protective face coverings as mandated by Governor Greg Abbott.

In Presidio, Guadalupe Hernandez wears a floral embroidered mask as she serves up hot, fresh pastries at the shop that still sees lots of daily visitors. In Marfa, Livingston Ranch Supplies has signage with bandana-wearing cowboy imagery that asks patrons to “cowboy up!!” and “cowboy distance.”

The Big Bend is lucky to have plenty of space to distance, but when its residents do encounter each other in Presidio County, there’s a 75% chance that in five random encounters with your neighbors, every single one of them is wearing a mask.

Marfa resident Mimi Simpson sees travelers all day, every day during her shifts at the Uncle’s gas station and convenience store in the heart of Marfa. Customers come from across the Big Bend, Midland-Odessa, Chihuahua and even farther to fuel up and get snacks as they make their treks through the area. “For the most part, everyone pretty much follows the guidelines,” Simpson said, and when they don’t, she asks them to cover up.

Simpson herself has been wearing a mask since the city of Marfa issued an ordinance that local businesses must require employees and customers to wear masks, and Uncle’s instituted a company policy. The company provides masks for employees like Simpson, and she said she usually feels safe from the illness.

Signs at the counter ask customers to help maintain six feet of social distance and Uncle’s has added plexiglass shields around the cashiers to stop the saliva droplets that scientists have shown travel feet through the air, especially without the help of a face covering to stop them.

In an area like Presidio County, where residents are 82% Hispanic or Latino according to census data, mask wearing can be a life or death issue. Recent data has shown Latinos are four times more likely to experience COVID-19 hospitalizations than their white counterparts.

Next door in Jeff Davis County, the mask-wearing numbers are almost as good as Presidio County, with a 70% chance all five of any given strangers you encounter will be masked. But Brewster County has the lowest incidence of mask-wearing in the tri-county according to the data, lagging behind its tri-county neighbors. The area has only a 61% chance that all five strangers you encounter would be wearing a mask; that is still higher than much of West Texas, where numbers near Midland show only a 32% chance of all five people encountered having masks on.

In south Brewster County, Big Bend Ranch State Park rangers and patrons were wearing bandanas over their mouths and noses this weekend – sporting the traditional West Texas look while also, as an added benefit, combatting the desert dust.

In north Brewster County, Betty Charlton, an employee at the Big Bend Saddlery, said that from the wide array of guests who visit the saddlery, it seems to be young people who wear masks the least. To her, it seems like there is a “mindset that everything is bulletproof and nothing can get them,” she said of her encounters with young folks coming in to shop.

“I’ve been wearing a mask since March,” Charlton said, a decision she credits to having two daughters in Austin, where coronavirus hit well before it reached the Big Bend. It made her take earlier precautions.

And as a retail worker on the frontlines, she feels the risk, though less so as long as people adhere to the mask rules. “If they don’t have a mask, I’ll step back from them. I have COPD and asthma, so it gives me a higher risk,” she said. “Plus I’m old,” she laughed.

For Charlton, the threat of the virus has recently become more real. She lost a friend she grew up with to coronavirus this month: a 58-year-old who had recently gone on a motorcycle trip with friends. It encouraged her to continue masking up around Alpine, especially while working in retail.

A recent mask explainer written by Dr. Ekta Escovar, a local health authority and doctor, said, “The bottom line is that any face mask made of solid material is better than no mask at all. So, a homemade cotton mask is still a significant layer of protection.” The medical community and local government ordinances have asked the public not to purchase N-95 masks, which are more difficult to reuse and should be reserved for frontline medical staff. Instead, Escovar encourages residents to wash masks with hot water and soap each night, and hang them to dry.

“An important note: masks with built-in valves are ineffective at stopping the spread of any virus,” the mask explainer stressed. “A simple cloth mask is a better mask than a construction mask with a valve. Stop using masks with valves on them or put masking tape over the outside of the valves, please!”

And for those who have an infected individual in their household, Escovar said that wearing a mask throughout the day has been shown to lessen the chance of contracting the virus.

There’s cautious optimism in the Big Bend area, where outbreaks have slowed, though cases are still being added to each of the counties at a slower pace. In an interview with a medical publication last week, Dr. Redfield of the CDC said, “I think if we can get everyone to wear masks right now, we can bring this under control within four, six, eight weeks.”