Contact tracing, roads and city buildings reopening: This week at Marfa City Council

MARFA — After weeks in the works, the city is closer than ever to setting up local contact tracing in collaboration with state officials — a first for a small Texas town like Marfa. But a number of logistical challenges are drawing at that process, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported. Chief among them: John Paul “J.P.” Schwartz, the local health authority who would likely play a role in the city’s contact tracing efforts, is technically a county official.

But those issues likely wouldn’t be a problem, Teresa Todd, the Marfa city attorney, said at Tuesday’s virtual city council meeting. For one thing, she said, Mayor Manny Baeza was pretty sure that Schwartz is technically also a city health official as well.

For another, Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara — Schwartz’s boss at the county — is willing to have him work with the city on contact tracing. Judge Guevara simply asked a few things in return, including that city officials share data with the county and also performed contact investigations in areas like Sal Si Puedes, which lies just outside Marfa city limits.

Judge Guevara has previously expressed concern about a county official like Schwartz working with the city without the expressed approval of county officials. But in an interview this week, she stressed she thought local contact-tracing efforts “could be more efficient and effective” than state efforts.

Instead, Guevara said, she’d simply heard conflicting reports from state officials on the feasibility of such a program and wanted the city to go through the proper channels before using a county official. “I can’t speak for county commissioners,” she said. “Perhaps they’ll feel the same way.”

County commissioners will vote on an interlocal agreement about the Marfa contact-tracing program as soon as Marfa submits its county memorandum of understanding, which city officials are still working on.

Separately, the city council was asked whether to authorize Manny Baeza to give the green light to state health officials — officially marking Marfa’s approval of the program. Unanimously, they voted yes.

But it was an action-packed agenda, and contact tracing was hardly the only important issue before city officials. Among the other contenders were:


KSA, the municipal engineering firm Marfa hired to review its roads, has finished phase one of its assessment. Now, the company wants to move onto phase two — or “actually get going on the improvements,” as Abiel Carrillo, a project manager at the firm, put it.

Carrillo outlined 12 steps that he said would come next. First was “notice to proceed” from the city. Last was a review of the final construction work.

But in between were a range of other tasks, from city council updates and design to project bidding and “stakeholder review.” That last item, Carrillo said, could involve hearing from other entities that might intersect with the project. For example, he said, maybe Union Pacific would want input on any road repairs at train crossings.

City officials were pleased with KSA’s work. “It’s pretty cool to see how fast Abiel has been able to move this process along,” Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda said. “I really have a lot of confidence in KSA.”

City council voted to proceed with KSA’s street work — though they acknowledged they still want to hear more from locals on the projects and priorities.“I do agree we need more input,” Mayor Manny Baeza said.

Disaster ordinances

As has become common during the coronavirus crisis, city council on Tuesday renewed its local disaster ordinances. There are three such ordinances altogether, each relating to a different aspect of disaster response.

The first is Marfa’s official disaster declaration. The second covers policies and protocols and policies for reopening city buildings. The third issues mask-requirements in Marfa and was passed after Governor Greg Abbott in June allowed such orders to go into effect.

“There are very little changes to any of these ordinances,” City Attorney Todd said. She noted that Governor Abbott had issued no new executive orders to limit or expand the authority of cities like Marfa.

Like last time, the policies on reopening city buildings prompted the most discussion. Buck Johnston, who previously opposed reopening city buildings, said she’d reopened her Wrong Marfa store around two months ago and that so far, the experience “has been extremely positive.”

Still, Johnston noted her situation was different since she was an independent business owner. “I’m not asking someone to work for me,” she said. “That changes when we’re asking our employees to take these risks.”

Council asked city employees how they’d feel about reopening. But at the meeting, the response was mixed. Cherry Torres, the municipal court clerk, said that “honestly I think we need to start opening up for the public,” but City Secretary Chelsea Smith disagreed. “Every time restrictions are relaxed,” she said, it seems like “there are more cases and an outbreak.”

Mandy Roane, the city director of community services, was more ambivalent. She said she’d “already let staff know that [reopening] is probably going to happen” and that “we’re probably about as ready as we’re going to be.”

She was still trying to find hand-sanitizer dispensers, she said, but thought the city could get some hand sanitizer in bulk, including from other local officials. (Bert Lagarde, the city’s EMS director, later clarified in the Zoom comments that Marfa EMS had some to spare.)

Ultimately, city council decided to move the city to phase four of reopening. That will mean opening up city buildings like the Marfa Visitor Center for limited capacity.

City buildings will be limited to one guest at a time, unless they are a household, in which case two people could come in. Even more people could come in in the case of a dependent — for example, if a single mother wanted to visit the Marfa Visitor Center with her three kids.

In advance of the switchover, the city plans to get ready with protective glass and more hand sanitizer in buildings. If all goes to plan, the changes will go into effect next Monday, August 17.