Officials discourage travel, circulate PSAs in response to rising case counts

TRI-COUNTY — As coronavirus cases continue to creep up across the region, officials are responding by renewing emergency ordinances, trying to organize testing or discouraging tourism to the region altogether. In a candid social media post last week, Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez said he wanted to “strongly urge everyone to please avoid unnecessary travel to Presidio County.”

“We have always welcomed all our visitors equally,” Dominguez wrote. However, the “high rise of COVID-19 cases in the area” has put the county in a “state of emergency.”

“Please review the latest numbers and let them speak for themselves,” Dominguez added. “Let’s exercise responsible caution for the wellness of everyone.” At press time, Presidio County had almost 200 active coronavirus cases, more than double the confirmed number of local active cases in the days before Thanksgiving.

Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara declined to comment on whether she agreed that tourists should avoid visits — a topic that’s become a flashpoint in debates over coronavirus restrictions. Regardless, Guevara and other officials in the region have urged their own constituents to continue taking precautions to protect themselves and others, including by limiting travel.

Local health officials like Dr. John Paul “J.P.” Schwartz, the health authority for Presidio County, have urged people to limit their outings and encouraged residents not to travel to El Paso. Likewise, in a news release on Monday, Judge Guevara asked residents to “shelter in place as much as possible” and “avoid all non-essential travel,” citing the “alarming rates of coronavirus cases in our community.”

“May all of you remain vigilant and hopeful,” Guevara added.

In Marfa on Tuesday, city council renewed its three coronavirus ordinances. Those include a requirement of face masks at businesses, a rule also enforced through statewide orders. They also once again declared that the city was in a state of emergency, allowing city officials to (for example) access relief funds for services like the city’s contact tracing program.

City buildings are staying at “yellow,” meaning community spaces are closed, masks are required and public entry is banned or limited in public buildings. However, the city decided to reopen the recycling center for service after closing it in response to case numbers last week.

In Presidio, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, frustrations have been growing for weeks as the local school district has scaled back virtual-learning options while cases rise. The Presidio school board in October removed virtual learning options for any students who were missing or failing classes. In November, they moved to cut those options altogether.

But as Presidio cases continue to climb, officials in the region disagree on why Presidio has seen such a surge in cases. With anemic testing and contact tracing resources throughout the Big Bend, local officials don’t always get timely updates on cases in the area or thorough investigations on how local patients were infected.

Dr. Schwartz put the blame on what he said is a “general disregard for pandemic precautions” in Presidio. He warned that people were still holding gatherings and making cross-border trips and said residents needed further advisories on how to limit coronavirus spread.

Others in Presidio, though, felt that the border city was facing the same challenges as elsewhere: people in Presidio — like much of the country — are starting to feel pandemic fatigue. And with at least around 20% of the town living in poverty, according to census figures from last year, many residents simply need to support their families and can’t afford to forego work to shelter at home.

“Our people are probably letting their guard down, but I wouldn’t characterize it as general carelessness in Presidio,” Mayor John Ferguson said. He argued most Presidians were being diligent about rules like mask-wearing, saying he’d received countless messages from residents “who are super nervous about everything.”

Malynda Richardson, the city EMS director, agreed with Ferguson’s assessments. “I think Presidio in general has been pretty cautious,” she said — though she acknowledged that when even just a few residents hold a get together, it can have a “very bad result” for everyone in town.

In Alpine, the local metrics aren’t ideal, Erik Zimmer, the city manager for Alpine, said at a city council meeting last week. He cited data from Covid Act Now, a nonprofit that works with groups like the Harvard Global Health Institute to provide county-level data on coronavirus metrics.

Positivity rates had climbed from around 7% to closer to 30%, Zimmer said, “so more people who are being tested are testing positive.” The infection rate — that is, the number of people, on average, that one person with coronavirus infects — climbed from around 1.3 to 1.7.

There are “more positive cases per capita,” Zimmer said, a fact he attributed not only to cold weather and schools being open, but to the fact that people were generally “more inside.” Several city employees had tested positive for coronavirus, he said, most of them frontline workers like police officers and utility servicepeople.

By press time, those figures from Covid Act Now appeared to have improved, with a positivity rate on Tuesday of around 7.2% and an infection rate of 0.96. But without more frequent testing in the region, and with limited testing options for asymptomatic people, those figures may climb again after the Big Bend sees results from the latest state testing blitz this week.

In better news, Zimmer said Stephanie Elmore, the Brewster County emergency management coordinator, was working to set up more local testing. (Elmore did not respond to a request for comment by press time.) Zimmer said the city also planned to start publishing biweekly public service announcements and status reports, giving residents up-to-date information on metrics like positivity rates.

The goal, he said, was to “compliment” information put out by Brewster County and help local business owners and residents get a sense of local coronavirus trends. “Hopefully, we calm some level of the fear,” Zimmer said, and “also open the door up for more dialogue.”

Meanwhile, Alpine ISD has continued with in-person learning, Superintendent Rebecca “Becky” McCutchen confirmed in an email this week. The district has played several basketball games in the past week, including games against Marfa and Ft. Stockton.

At the city council meeting last week, Zimmer offered context on why local schools had stayed open despite closing for more than a week last month.

“The reason is pretty simple,” Zimmer said. In November, more than a dozen teachers tested positive for coronavirus or had to quarantine, and the schools “couldn’t bring in enough substitutes.”

At the moment, only four teachers are sick or quarantining. It was logistically possible to continue in-person classes. “They’ve got to have enough teachers to be able to conduct class in a classroom setting,” Zimmer said.