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Marfa reopens — or not

Some businesses across the state are now allowed to open at 25% occupancy, but in Far West Texas, many of the region's most popular tourist destinations remain closed. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

By Stephen Paulsen, The Big Bend Sentinel

MARFA — Visitors are trickling into Marfa hotels again after Governor Greg Abbott’s “reopening” plan began on Friday. Abbott’s order overruled a range of local emergency measures across the state, including face-mask requirements and the tri-county’s temporary bans on short-term rentals.

But among the many signs that life in Marfa hasn’t returned to normal, there’s a lengthy note Hotel Paisano is sending to anyone with reservations.

“Dear valued guests,” it reads. “At this time in our nation’s history, it is more important than ever that we consider each other as we venture from the safety of our homes.”

It asks guests to “seriously consider” whether they’ve had any coronavirus symptoms or contact with a patient and to “not travel to Marfa at this time” if they do.

It lists the many disruptions in Marfa (“most, if not all, galleries are closed”) and at the hotel (“we are not able to offer housekeeping”). And it asks visitors to please adhere to social distancing if they encounter any residents.

“If, after reading these announcements, you would like to choose not to visit at this time, we certainly understand and ask that you call the front desk to reschedule your reservation,” the letter ends. “Until we see or hear from you, we wish you health and safety!”

And so began the reopening in Marfa — not with a bang, but with a few visitors from places like California and Austin. Bars and art galleries are closed. Few, if any, restaurants are seating customers. Some hotels have opened but are seeing a fraction of the tourists they might normally see.

Of the few visitors that are still arriving, most aren’t staying for long, said Jose Prat, manager at the Thunderbird.

“Most people are travelling from California and Austin and need to stay here for the night,” he said. “They’re en route to somewhere else.”

Governor Greg Abbott’s reopening plan goes against the advice of some health experts — who say it’s too soon to reopen — as well as the will of most Texans. Seventy-seven percent of Texans are in favor of stay-at-home restrictions, a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found last week, including 69 percent of Republicans.

In announcing his plans last week, Abbott said his order is “permission to open — not a requirement.” But that permission does not extend to local communities attempting to govern themselves.

In Marfa and Presidio County, local officials decided to continue their bans on short-term rentals even after Abbott’s order. But those efforts were thwarted after a spokesperson for Abbott called Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara and demanded the county reverse course.

The hotel bans weren’t the only local emergency measures to fall victim to Abbott’s order. Abbott also overruled face-mask requirements across the state, including in major cities like in Houston and San Antonio and in Presidio.

At a Presidio city council meeting last week, Antonio Manriquez, a Presidio city councilmember, captured how some tri-county residents are feeling about the mandatory loosening of restrictions.

“We’re casualties of war,” he said. “We’re dispensable.”

Even for workers and businesses, that “permission” might not exactly be voluntary. With a few exceptions, people on unemployment can’t keep collecting unemployment if their workplaces reopen — no matter how uneasy they might feel about returning to work.

Small-business owners are in a similar bind. Businesses don’t have to reopen — but if they do, they may not have latitude to let worried workers stay at home. That’s because the Paycheck Protection Program, which threw a lifeline to businesses during the coronavirus crisis, requires companies to make rehires.

With or without the state reopening, many restaurants in Marfa have decided for now to keep doing pick-up and delivery only, as The Big Bend Sentinel reported last week.

“It’s way too soon,” Sabine Blaese, owner of brunch-and-lunch spot Aster, said of the prospect of reopening in a phone interview. Barbeque eatery Convenience West likewise said in a social media post that it’d made the “tuff decision” not to reopen dine-in service yet.

Also still closed: cultural institutions. The Judd and Chinati foundations aren’t reopening yet — nor are most local art galleries and shops.

Nor are other institutions like schools — which the state has ordered closed for the rest of the academic year — or churches. Gary Dill, pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Marfa, said many church leaders are instead choosing to stay closed.

“I don’t think any church in Marfa is starting anything up,” he said. He estimated local churches will continue virtual services for around the next four weeks.

What has opened, though, are some hotels and short-term rentals. Thunderbird Hotel has reopened, though manager Jose Prat said that just a few visitors are trickling in.

“It was a tough decision for sure,” he said of the hotel’s reopening — adding that he worried the Thunderbird could have gone under if it stayed closed any longer. “When you have a business like this, every day you stay closed gets harder to reopen,” he said.

The hotel is operating with a skeleton staff and has adopted a number of safety protocols, he said, including closing the lounge, limiting office visits to one person at a time and limiting the numbers of rooms they would rent. (Unlike restaurants and some other businesses, Texas hotels do not have to follow any mandatory occupancy limits.)

At the Hotel Paisano, owners Joe and Lanna Duncan also decided to reopen after Texas’s stay-at-home order expired. But the hotel was also taking precautions, including requiring staff to wear masks, temporarily ending housekeeping service and imposing a voluntary 25 percent limit on occupancy, said general manager Vicki Barge.

With occupancy limits or not, local hotels say normally high demand for tourist accommodations simply hasn’t returned yet.

“People are not necessarily saying, ‘Let’s go out and travel,’” Prat said. “We don’t have that level of demand.”

Still, the prospect of visitors returning as coronavirus is sweeping across the country — and as many Marfans are still sheltering at home — has given some the impression of a town under siege.

At Bad Hombres, a group of tourists “yanked on the door hard enough to break the latch,” then yelled at wait staff before storming off and writing a bad online review, said owner David Beebe. Beebe ended up nailing the door shut.

Valleto, a New York-based dance company, prompted internet outrage over the weekend after it announced it was planning an event in Marfa. “Please stay the hell away from our safe community,” Councilmember Raul Lara said on Facebook. The company quickly reversed course, canceling the event and apologizing.

When the Hotel Paisano reopened, one of their first reservations came from a family from Amarillo, said general manager Vicky Barge. Potter County, where Amarillo sits, so far has around 900 coronavirus cases. One of the family’s kids has asthma, and they were desperate to get out.

In a sense, the reopening in Marfa is a test. Whereas state leaders had been deciding how to balance public safety with economic needs, they have now abdicated that responsibility and are leaving regular citizens themselves to grapple with those tough questions. Questions like: How does a small-business owner balance the needs of their struggling business against the health and safety of the community? And: What’s the limit to Marfa’s hospitality?

These questions have already caused tension in Marfa. The shutdown has certainly been hard for businesses, and stories about kids with asthma pull on heartstrings. On the other hand, the more visitors arrive, the less likely Marfa is to stay a relative refuge from coronavirus.