Alpine council discusses regional transit, newspapers and COVID-19

ALPINE — City leaders discussed a wide range of topics at Alpine City Council’s virtual meeting on Tuesday night, from tourism and regional transit to — of course — coronavirus.

The Big Bend Sentinel even made an appearance, as city leaders considered making this paper the city’s new and official newspaper of record. But with city council members wanting to learn more details, that agenda item was ultimately tabled.


Dr. Ekta Escovar, the local health authority for Brewster County, couldn’t stay at the meeting for long: She had a scheduled routine call with state health officials. But first, she gave city council an update on the status of the coronavirus pandemic in Alpine and Brewster County — showing that while the area has improved dramatically since its outbreak this summer, there’s still a ways to go before the region gets back to pre-outbreak infection levels.

Escovar covered some key statistics, from ICU capacity (no one is currently in local ICU beds for coronavirus, “so that’s a good thing”) to case counts, which at press time sit at seven active cases for Brewster County, according to the county’s official data.

One of the main takeaways, Escovar said, was that both active case counts and deaths were continuing to fall across Texas. “That’s really good news,” she said. But after improving in per capita testing rates compared to other states, Texas has started slipping again and has the 10th-worst testing rate in the nation.

“Hopefully there’s some changes being made,” Escovar said. But she stressed those stats applied for the whole state and that the tri-county was doing “pretty well” and was “about average for the country” in terms of testing rates.

In worse news, Brewster County’s local positivity rate — that is, the percentage of people who get tested and later receive positive coronavirus results — was around 7.5%, a higher rate than officials would like it to be. (Ideally, officials are looking for a positivity rate of 5% or less.) And as a pediatrician, Escovar said she was receiving a growing number of calls from parents who worried their kids might be infected.

As both Alpine ISD and Sul Ross State University reopen after the summer break, it could be a little bit longer before officials see the health effects of those changes, Escovar said.

“Usually, it takes about a week to spread infection,” she said, “and then another week to 10 days to show symptoms.”

Regional transit

The Texas Department of Transportation has spent years considering overhauls to the region’s transportation system, from discussions of expanding U.S. Highway 67 to talk of increased train and freight traffic from Mexico. But some of those discussions have been contentious in Alpine, where an expanded transportation network could mean more truck traffic right through the center of town.

“What does that mean for Holland Avenue?” City Manager Erik Zimmer asked at the meeting, referring to the local street name for U.S. Highway 90. “What does that mean for tourism through the town, if you have trucks that — instead of passing every minute — could be passing every 30 seconds?”

With those discussions still very much underway — TxDOT last month just released the latest draft of its “Presidio Freight & Trade Transportation Plan” — Zimmer didn’t have much in terms of concrete updates. Instead, he just wanted to let residents know that Alpine officials were thinking about these concerns, participating in roundtables and making sure the city’s needs were considered.

“We’ve got a lot at stake,” he added. The “lifeblood” of Alpine’s economy comes down to both tourism and Sul Ross State University, he said, and Alpine needs to make sure to “maintain it” — remaining a destination in its own right, and not just a blip on an expanded highway system.

Museum of the Big Bend

Mary Bones, the executive director of the Museum of the Big Bend, was there to give a “quick update on how the museum has done” for the fiscal year from August 2019 to August 2020, which captures (so far) all of the coronavirus crisis. And all things considered, Bones had good news.

During that time, the museum had seen around 14,000 visitors and was averaging about two student groups a month. That isn’t bad, considering the museum was closed for around five months from March to July — including over spring break, when it may have normally seen not only more tourists, but more students there to learn.

The museum has reduced hours to Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. for “the foreseeable future,” Bones said. And as life goes virtual during the pandemic, the museum has also seen a “dramatic rise” in traffic to its Facebook page, she said.

The museum is also updating its video technology and adding “state-of-the-art touch screens,” but Bones’ presentation did include some drawbacks too. With the pandemic still affecting tourism and daily life, the gift shop — normally a big breadwinner at the museum — had just “broke even,” Bones said.

Still, officials were pleased that the museum was staying afloat and continuing to serve patrons. City Manager Zimmer called it “such a great asset for the community” and “on the must-do list” for visitors.

The newspaper of record

While many people think of “newspaper of record” as a colloquial term — that is, the entity that serves as a repository for accurate records and historical documents from an area — the phrase actually also has a technical meaning.

In Texas at least, cities must have a “newspaper of record” in which they place public notices and other documents that they must, by law, allow the public to review.

Currently, The Big Bend Sentinel serves as the newspaper of record for Marfa and Presidio County. But on Tuesday, Alpine city leaders debated making this paper the newspaper of record for Alpine as well.

As council discussed the measure, City Attorney Rod Ponton read some of the laws outlining what is required for a paper of record. City council members decided they wanted to know more about those technical qualifications and voted to table the measure until the next scheduled meeting on September 15.