Even in Rural West Texas, Coronavirus Shutdowns Hit Home

The tourist economy of Marfa, Texas, has ground to a halt amid the global coronavirus pandemic. (CNS Photo/Travis Bubenik)

MARFA, Texas (CN) – The Lost Horse Saloon is not your typical cowboy bar.

Sure, it’s got dim lights, pool tables and cattle skulls on the walls. But has your local saloon ever hosted a Japanese punk band for a photo shoot or given a tour to Anthony Bourdain?

Such is the norm in small-town Marfa, Texas – the “capital of quirkiness,” as Morley Safer once put it – a onetime cow town and borderlands military outpost turned international arts destination via the cult of minimalism.

Normally at this time of year, the town’s gravelly streets are flooded with tourists from all over the world, starry eyed in their new felt hats and seeking a taste of the mythic West – or just friendly people, killer barbecue and stunning sunsets, all of which are in good supply.

But the sweeping societal disruptions from the global coronavirus pandemic have arrived here in full force. Now, the streets are empty, the hotels are closed and the beer’s going bad at the saloon.

As of press time, there have been no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus or Covid-19, the disease the virus causes, in Marfa or the surrounding Big Bend region of Texas. But local officials have nonetheless shut down hotels, Airbnb’s and RV parks, worried that even a small outbreak of the virus brought in from the outside could easily overwhelm the area’s already limited health care infrastructure. The bars are all closed and restaurants are take-out only after a statewide order from Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

Far West Texas, with its sprawling landscapes and wide-open highways, can often feel pretty removed from the rest of the world. But the impacts of the pandemic have trickled down here in a way that few, if any, other world events have before. Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, locals say, day-to-day life didn’t grind to a halt the way it has now.

“One reason it upsets me the most is because we never close,” said Ty Mitchell, the lanky, eye-patch-wearing cowboy that owns the Lost Horse.

Mitchell isn’t mad about the closures – “you can’t put people at risk just because you want to be hardheaded,” he says – but the way he tells it, the whole thing just rattles the spirit of rugged individualism West Texans pride themselves on.

The Lost Horse was open after the disastrous Rockhouse Fire of 2011, one of the worst wildfires in the state’s history that torched more than 300,00 acres of ranchland in the area and destroyed more than 20 homes.

Restaurants across Texas are either closed or in take-out only mode after an order from Gov. Greg Abbott (CNS Photo/Travis Bubenik)

“I went out for a few days and moved livestock and wildlife and cut fences, and when we got back, the bartenders kept the bar open, we barbecued and took water to the firefighters,” Mitchell said.

When a brutal ice storm hit the region years ago, knocking out power to most of the town, the bar stayed open.

“I’ve always said that no matter what goes on, we’re going to do everything we can to possibly stay open for the people,” Mitchell said. “This was out of our control this time.”

The business closures threaten to upend the “Marfa hustle” that so many here rely on, working a variety of jobs to scrape together a life with the reward of living it on your own terms.

Already scrappy businesses are cutting jobs or hours. Self-employed shop owners, suddenly with no foot traffic through their doors during what would otherwise be the busiest time of year, are pushing online sales to stay afloat. The closure of local hotels, even if temporary, threatens some of the town’s steadier jobs.

One of Marfa’s largest employers – a hip campground called El Cosmico that offers stylish vintage trailers as accommodations – has even launched an employee relief fund for the more than 20 staffers who have already been laid off.

“People are hurting every which way,” said Yoseff Ben-Yehuda, a Marfa City Council member. “Whether it’s just being annoyed or confused or frustrated or out of work, out of family or out of home.”

Restaurants have either entirely closed down or are doing their best to get by, offering take out or curbside pickup options. Thanks to a move from Governor Abbott, Mitchell’s bar can now sling drinks to go if someone orders a burger from the kitchen in the back. But the longer-term economic prospects are daunting.

“We have already done the research to know what to do if the time comes that we need to shut the doors and not even do no-touch service,” Jessie Browning, a local coffee shop and laundromat owner, told Marfa Public Radio, the region’s NPR station. “So we are prepared to do a temporary layoff of our employees if we need to.”

The shuttering of businesses comes during what would otherwise be a busy spring break season in tourist towns. (CNS Photo/Travis Bubenik)

“I don’t want to put nine people out of work,” Browning told the station. “We have children and families, not just our own but employees, that survive off of this business, and it’s a very stark reality to think about our income going down to zero.”

“No one’s going to come out of this unscathed,” said David Beebe, a local justice of the peace and restaurant owner. “People who are going to get hit the worst, the hardest, are non-salaried service industry people and people who are involved in the cleaning trade.”

In a town where housing costs are already inflated and some homeowners struggle to keep up with rising property taxes, the Texas Supreme Court’s recent decision to temporarily halt most eviction proceedings in the state could soften the pandemic’s immediate financial blow.

Marfa Mayor Manny Baeza told Courthouse News the city is in talks with some Airbnb owners about converting their properties to long-term rentals, which could help address the town’s already limited housing stock.

The recent quietness in Marfa has been almost eerie, especially considering how bustling the region was just a couple weeks ago, when neighboring Big Bend National Park was so packed that rangers had to guide traffic in and out of the park’s most popular hiking area.

Even before the closure orders from officials, local shops began to close voluntarily as news of the virus’ spread in the U.S. took on a more urgent tone. Tourists who had already traveled to the region were left in a sort of limbo.

Artist and writer Karolyn Gehrig was between homes and traveling around Texas as the news grew more dire. Marfa would be a safe place to ride out the storm, she figured, especially given her disabilities and history of chronic illness. She headed to town with the intention of staying as isolated as possible.

“But driving in, I drove through Marathon [a neighboring town], there were so many people just out on the streets and being tourists, and I was like what the fuck is going on?” she said.

She soon learned her Airbnb would be closed in a matter of days. Luckily, she found a place to rent month-to-month and plans to stay put.

“My priority is not contracting this disease, and I’m going to do everything I can to not contract this disease,” Gehrig said.

Even as the pandemic has shuttered the local economy, many residents here have praised efforts to discourage travel to the region. “Stay Home: Marfa’s Closed” one Marfa native wrote in an op-ed for the local newspaper.

“We’ve been through hard times before out in West Texas, and we’re pretty good at recovering from setbacks,” said Mitchell. “It’s going to be tough, but I think we’re going to pull together and help each other, and we’ll pull it off.

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