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Judge rules against Gage Hotel owner in lawsuit over early-pandemic local hotel closures

The owner of Marathon’s Gage Hotel sued Brewster County’s top elected official for temporarily closing hotels at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020.

By Travis Bubenik

A federal judge on Wednesday ruled in favor of Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano, the county’s top official, in a lawsuit over Cano’s move to temporarily close local hotels in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a 33-page ruling, U.S. District Judge David Counts wrote that Cano “had a rational basis for his orders and declarations — namely, the prevention and spread of COVID-19 in Brewster County in a business such as a hotel that attracts travelers from out of town.”

J.P. Bryan, owner of the Gage Hotel in Marathon, originally sued Cano in federal court a few weeks after the county judge’s first order in March 2020 required the Gage and other hotels to close and vacate their guests. Within a few days of his first order, Cano issued an amended order allowing certain people like healthcare workers, police and other emergency personnel to stay in hotels.

Bryan, a wealthy Texas businessman and noted historic preservationist, argued the hotel closures were unconstitutional. Even though the county judge’s restrictions were short-lived - hotels were allowed to fully reopen within about a month - Bryan has continued to insist the brief loss of tourist revenue hurt his business.

In court documents, Gage Hotel General Manager Carol Peterson wrote that the hotel lost just over $438,000 while Cano’s orders were in effect, though Cano’s defense attorneys dispute this claim.

During an October court hearing in Alpine, the county judge's attorneys defended his actions by pointing to a wide range of legal frameworks and court precedents to argue he had the authority to issue the closure orders.

Cano, in adopting a local “disaster declaration” because of the pandemic, was simply following the lead of Gov. Greg Abbott’s own statewide disaster declarations, his attorneys said..

Attorneys for Bryan pushed back, arguing that the county judge’s moves went beyond the governor’s, and that the hotel closures weren’t justified because the county had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19 at the time.

On Wednesday, Judge Counts rejected that argument.

“Plaintiffs ignore the likelihood that the restrictions that were put in place postponed any outbreak in Brewster County or at least flattened the curve by reducing the number of deaths in the short term to avoid overwhelming the hospital system,” he wrote.

Judge Counts concluded that under the Eleventh Amendment’s “sovereign immunity” protections for state government officials, Cano could not be sued for monetary damages because his closure orders were an extension of the governor’s own pandemic-related orders at the time.

An attorney for Bryan declined to comment on Wednesday’s ruling and also declined to say whether or not Bryan would appeal the decision.

Cano also declined to comment on the ruling.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.