As pandemic in Texas hits 1-year mark, a look back at a history-making year

In Texas, limited resources, confusing guidance and misinformation have made a bad situation worse.

Art by CrowCrumbs

TRI-COUNTY — Even as a growing number of locals get their vaccines, Texas and the Big Bend are reaching some grim milestones in the fight against coronavirus. A year ago on Monday — on March 15, 2020 — Texas saw its first confirmed death from coronavirus. More than 45,000 Texans have died since then, including at least 39 in the tri-county, according to records from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The pandemic arrived relatively late in the tri-county, with the first confirmed case showing up in Brewster County around late April. Regardless, it’s been just around a year since the first waves of dread started hitting the region.

Last March 12, many businesses in Marfa — including Do Your Thing, Stellina and Capri — started to either close or switch to to-go only. The Big Bend Sentinel started operating remotely on that day. Marfa instituted a shelter-in-place order on March 27. Presidio, Brewster and Jeff Davis counties all issued temporary bans on short-term rentals — a rare sign of unity in an era often wracked by partisan division.

It wasn’t long, though, before debates over coronavirus restrictions turned partisan in the Big Bend and across the country. In April, Governor Greg Abbott barred local governments from passing mask rules and other protections. The policy changes prompted some local outrage, with one Presidio official complaining that the state viewed Presidians as “dispensable.”

In addition to mask rules, Abbott’s order also prevented towns like Marfa from keeping its hotels and Airbnbs temporarily shuttered. In May, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, Marfa warily reopened.

Last summer, as cases in Texas spiked, Governor Greg Abbott claimed an overlooked loophole in his emergency orders allowed local governments to require businesses to require customers to wear masks. Confused, city and county officials across the state soon scrambled to reimpose such rules. Marfa started requiring masks again in June, with other cities like Alpine adopting similar rules shortly after.

The policy change was convoluted to even explain, because the state rules, at least according to Governor Abbott, hadn’t changed at all. Texas Monthly likened the guidance to “a riddle.” It was a fitting example of how state leaders have responded to the coronavirus crisis in Texas, where limited resources, confusing guidance and misinformation have at times made a bad situation worse.

But if the pandemic was marred by state and national mismanagement — if it often felt like the needs and wants of tri-county residents were being ignored by far-away leaders — the story was the opposite on the local level, where city and county officials worked hard to serve and protect their constituents.

City and county officials worked around the changing state guidance, constantly adjusting and refining rules and guidance that worked for their communities. Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara, among others, helped ensure that far-flung communities like Presidio weren’t forgotten in testing and vaccination efforts.

In Marfa, city officials, led by Councilmember Buck Johnston and City Attorney Teresa Todd, helped organize local contact-tracing — the first program of its kind in small-town rural Texas. Nor will tri-county residents soon forget the efforts of health officials like Dr. Ekta Escovar, who did their best to collect and present relevant coronavirus data in clear and calm tones.

Unfortunately, there was only so much local officials could do. For months, residents relied on irregular testing sites organized by the Texas Division of Emergency Management. Many residents complained of long wait times for results. That is, when testing was even available.

The state poured millions into third-party vendors to help organize the sites and process the tests — but some of those companies produced questionable results. One company, Honu, had to cancel a testing site in Alpine because it wasn’t prepared. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration this year warned of false negatives with the Curative mouth-swab test, which was used for months in the tri-county.

Fanned on by social media and then-President Donald Trump, misinformation also spread throughout the region. In Jeff Davis County in August, at a meeting that was ostensibly about the death of a beloved county judge, residents cheered each other on as they used the public-comment period to share conspiracy theories, including the claim that top health experts were “war criminals” who were profiting from the pandemic.

Even when much of the tri-county started requiring masks again, law enforcement dealt with non-compliance. In Marfa, city officials briefly considered legal action against both Dollar General and Stripes because they weren’t following mask ordinances. And at the Sul Ross State University rodeo in Alpine, a maskless man threatened police officers who were trying to remove him from the venue.

In future history books, the pandemic will hardly be the only big topic for 2020. In June, as the country protested and rioted over police killings of Black people, Alpine saw its largest protest march in recent memory.

Now, finally, 2020 is over. And soon, one hopes, the pandemic will be too. Vaccination efforts have continued in the tri-county, including a vaccine clinic last week in Marfa. At press time, according to DSHS data, more than 1,400 Presidio County residents have been fully vaccinated. Around 3,300 — more than half of all residents eligible for the vaccine — have received at least one shot.