By Carlos Morales
For a while, it seemed the threat of COVID-19 in rural West Texas was something that would arrive from the outside, from visitors coming from places harder hit by the disease.
So when cases began cropping up in the state’s metropolitan hubs, local governments in the Big Bend region closed hotels and short-term rentals to non-essential workers, and soon the tri-county put in place ordinances that limited residents and visitors from coming and leaving the area.
Those early measures seemed to have an impact. For months, there were little to no cases. But in the last two weeks, confirmed cases of the coronavirus have steadily climbed in Far West Texas. Local officials say transmission of the virus has largely been through community spread, where residents pass the virus to one another but the exact source of the infection is unknown.
Since March, health officials in the region have warned an influx of coronavirus patients would be devastating to the region’s severely limited medical infrastructure. For the entire tri-county area there’s only one hospital with 25 beds, two ICU beds, a handful of ventilators and no medical specialists.
When businesses and tourist destinations in Far West Texas began to reopen, local health officials looked on with concern as traffic in and out of the region began to increase.
Big Bend National Park, one of the region’s biggest tourist draws, is now seeing tourists again after closing for a couple of months over coronavirus concerns.
“What better place to connect with nature than Big Bend,” said Katie Martin-Lightfoot, who, along with her husband Matt, was part of the first wave of visitors to the park. “It’s just a really good opportunity to disconnect, but also, it’s really therapeutic.”
The two say the whole drive to West Texas, they thought about what their presence might mean for a region that, at that point, had yet to see multiple cases of the coronavirus.
“Are we going to bring germs to the people here?” Matt Martin-Lightfoot asked. So while they were at the park, he said they were “making sure that we’re taking the necessary precautions to keep the people in this community safe.”
When park officials first mulled over reopening, they wanted to make sure it was done methodically. Big Bend National Park Superintendent Bob Krumenaker says their phased reopening plan had input from local, state and federal authorities. Throughout most phases, visitors are asked to practice social distancing and are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings.
Krumenaker says he’s been agonizing over this process.
“There’s no clear right and wrong here,” he said during a recent visit. “And a lot of people’s economic lives and most of all their health lives will be affected by the decision I make.”
By Krumenaker’s estimate, the park is further from medical care than any other national park in the lower 48, so getting medical help in the remote park has always been a challenge. But now, the pandemic has complicated healthcare even further. “Four hours of transport, however much time they have to be at the hospital, however much time it took to get to the patient and package them, and then when they’re all back, you have to decontaminate everything,” Krumenaker explained.
Not long after the park reopened, Brewster County officials announced several new cases of the coronavirus.
All across the region, residents are grappling with how to run their operations responsibly. Counties in Far West Texas ordered hotels and short-term rentals to close for nearly 2 months but were allowed to begin taking reservations again in early May.
“It’s been stressful,” said Vicki Barge, the manager at the Hotel Paisano in Marfa. “It really has I mean, being closed was stressful. How long is this going to last? You know, what’s going to happen to my staff?
Some local businesses have focused their messaging on getting tourists to understand the region’s healthcare landscape with signs and social media posts that say things like “Small town no hospital, please wear a mask.” And more recently, the City of Marfa went a step further and ordered businesses to require employees and customers to wear face coverings when social distancing isn’t possible.
While Barge says she was concerned about the financial impact the hotel’s closure would have, she also said it’s been difficult to manage the health and safety of her team while interacting with so many visitors. “I personally have heart disease, which puts me in a vulnerable group. My partner that I live with has a compromised respiratory system. Now I have a nine-month-old grandson,” she said. “There are all these very personal things. I’m thinking, okay, I don’t want to put them in jeopardy.”
Although for months one of the big concerns from residents and officials was the potential for tourists to bring the virus into the vulnerable region, the majority of the cases in Far West Texas have been transmitted through community spread, and some of the earliest confirmed cases were contracted through residents traveling outside of the region and returning.
Alpine’s City Manager Erik Zimmer says there are residents who just haven’t taken the pandemic seriously and haven’t adhered to the guidelines health authorities have issued to prevent the spread of the disease. But, overall, he says the atmosphere in the rural town is beginning to change since more cases have been confirmed. The coronavirus pandemic has now become less abstract for residents.
“[There’s] absolutely a heightened sense of concern,” Zimmer said. “You know, you see it in people’s communication, whether it’s social media, phone calls, text messages, emails, as well as in just the general temperament in town.”
Dr. Ekta Escovar is head of the region’s COVID-19 task force. She says people should stay home, wear facial coverings in public, and continue to stay six feet apart to slow the spread of the virus.
“This is not the place to get sick, this is not the place where we want a lot of our community getting sick with COVID, because our limited healthcare system will not be able to handle a large influx of patient volume locally.”
From the outside, the Big Bend region seems like the perfect place to be in a pandemic. The towns are spread out and sparsely populated. But that feeling of safety hinges on there being few COVID-19 cases here.
If the disease spreads more and strains the region’s limited medical infrastructure, then the area can quickly become one of the scariest places to be.