J. P. Bryan, owner of the Gage Hotel in Marathon, is suing Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano and Brewster County commissioners over the county’s recent declaration to close hotels and short-term rentals, an unprecedented measure instigated in the interest of public health, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For now, the mandate requires that hotels and short-term guest rentals close through April 2. According to the declaration issued by the county on March 17th, “Brewster County is taking extraordinary measures to prevent the spread of this potentially devastating disease in our community.”
Commissioner Ruben Ortega, who voted against the order, was not named in the suit.
Bryant is seeking a temporary restraining order, a temporary injunction, a permanent injunction, and “monetary relief of $100,000 or less.”
The lawsuit filed in district court today claims that “Hotels must be ready to house first responders, stranded travelers, persons who have suffered domestic violence and members of the military.”
The suit states that “Hotels in Texas are being treated as essential critical infrastructure that must remain open during COVID-19. If the Gage Hotel is forced to close, most of its employees will find other jobs and be permanently lost to the hotel workforce.”
The suit cites two recent executive orders by Texas Governor Abbott, one which “does not require or recommend to Texas Counties that they close hotels” and the other which “does not mandate or recommend that hotels be closed.”
The suit also includes a March 19 document from the Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) as evidence that the Gage Hotel should be allowed to remain open as they are of critical importance during this pandemic. The CISA document, “Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce,” offers the following recommendation: “We recognize that state, local, tribal and territorial governments are ultimately in charge of implementing and executing responsive activities in communities under their jurisdiction while the Government is in a supporting role.
As state and local communities consider COVID-19- related restrictions, CISA is offering this list to assist prioritizing activities related to continuity of operations and incident response, including the appropriate movement of critical infrastructure workers within and between jurisdictions. Accordingly, this list is advisory in nature. It is not, nor should it be considered to be, a directive or standard in and of itself.”
Lead attorney Francis S. Ainsa, Jr. representing Bryan in this lawsuit told the Gazette, “Hotels need to be open because you’ve got be able to provide a place for military to stay, National Guard, stranded people, people who need a shelter because maybe they need to be quarantined. There are a number of reasons why hotels need to stay open and no one appears to have given any thought to that.”
Ainsa confirmed that the Homeland Security directives cited in the lawsuit are “guidelines,” not requirements nor mandates. According to Ainsa, these guidelines have been implemented by most cities in Texas, “Except notably the three counties in West Texas that have taken steps to close hotels.”
“What’s ironic about it is the hotels in West Texas probably don’t have any guests anyway, because bars and restaurants were shut down some time ago and just the general fear of Coronavirus has kept people from coming on vacation and tourists to West Texas. The purpose that the hotels will serve will be to enable the military, the National Guard, to have a place to stay if they are called into this area. It’s basically in the interest of public health.”
Ainsa clarified his aforementioned statement “was for the temporary injunction hearing, not for the TRO [temporary restraining order].”
Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano declined to comment.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated and includes the corrected spelling of J.P. Bryan