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Big Bend Counties Allow Select Businesses To Reopen At 50% Capacity This Week

Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio

With little to no confirmed cases of the coronavirus, Brewster, Jeff Davis and Presidio counties got the green-light from the state for retail stores, restaurants and libraries to open their doors up to 50% capacity.

As part of Gov. Greg Abbott's efforts to reopen the Texas economy, counties with fewer than five confirmed cases of COVID-19 were able to apply for the occupancy increase.

"We had met all of the requirements on that attestation [form], so it ended up going through," Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara told Marfa Public Radio.

The attestation application requires counties meet several standards before moving forward with the capacity increase, including creating a plan for "contract tracing [that] will occur within 48 hours of a positive test" and ensuring facilities like county jails and agricultural businesses with a significant number of employees are complying with state and federal guidelines on COVID-19.

"We hadn't gone to 50% right off because we were waiting for test results," said Guevara, referring to results from a string of temporary testing sites in Far West Texas.

The multiple rounds of coronavirus testing coordinated by the Texas National Guard brought a boost to screening capabilities in the Big Bend, but testing in the tri-county area remains scarce. Between the number of tests issued by the local hospital, area clinics and those administered by the state, roughly 380 Big Bend residents have been tested so far. The population of the region is near 18,000.

County judges are awaiting results from the latest round of testing that took place in Fort Davis, the City of Presidio and Marfa this week.

Speaking at a Brewster County Commissioners Court meeting a day after the county formally moved forward with the capacity increase, County Judge Eleazar Cano said residents needed to be "mindful" of limitations and "be responsible for our part of what we're doing to make sure we can keep things going and keep folks safe."

Part of the attestation form filed by Big Bend counties says stricter restrictions will be reapplied if coronavirus cases begin to spike, including if the county has more than 3 positive cases per 1,000 residents.

"There's a lot of folks who are wanting to go back to 50% and at some point go back to business as usual," said Dr. Ekta Escovar during a Brewster County Commissioners Court meeting this week. "Remember that the way COVID is looking right now, I don't think we'll be going back to business, as usual, any time soon."

"We still need to keep doing our part if we want to stay at 50%, so now it's on us to stay at a low-case count," said Escovar, who's Brewster County's health authority and the head of a regional COVID-19 task force.

Although some businesses are now allowed to open up their doors and dining spaces again, some Marfa-area businesses have decided not to, citing safety concerns.

Results from the latest round of testing in Fort Davis, Marfa and Presidio won't be available for at least another week, according to local officials. But testing conducted by the Texas National Guard in late April came back largely negative, with only a single confirmed case of the coronavirus in the Big Bend region.

That patient, a South Brewster County resident, has since recovered, according to local health authorities.

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.