Hotels in Texas Tourist Towns Could Reopen Soon, but Concerns Linger

Hotels in Texas tourist towns could get back to business this week, but some locals in a rural part of the state worry an influx of tourists could bring Covid-19 to a region that has been mostly spared.

In the rural tourist town of Marfa, Texas, the streets have been quiet after officials closed hotels to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (Courthouse News photo/Travis Bubenik)

MARFA, Texas (CN) – In a normal year, the past couple months would’ve been the boom times for the Big Bend region of Far West Texas, often called the state’s backyard.

Tourists typically flock to this rural corner of the state in droves throughout the spring, drawn by the region’s idyllic high desert weather, sprawling vistas and starry night skies. City dwellers max out the campsites at Big Bend National Park, while travelers from around the world descend on the tiny town of Marfa for its esteemed minimalist art museums.

But in recent weeks, officials have shut the gates to outsiders, hoping to prevent the coronavirus pandemic from sweeping into an area where the local 25-bed hospital has only two ventilators.

In March, multiple county governments closed hotels, motels and Airbnbs to anyone but essential workers and limited travel in and out of the region. The closures dealt a crippling blow to the tourism-dependent economy, though they arguably worked: much of the region has still not had a single confirmed case of the Covid-19 disease.

Now, thanks to an order this week from Republican Governor Greg Abbott, hotels could start getting back to business as soon as Friday, though some worry an influx of visitors could raise new health risks for a region that’s been lucky so far during the pandemic.

“I personally don’t want to see hotels open up yet,” said Brenda Silva Bentley, an elected official in Presidio County. “I feel that it is too soon, and would open up our communities to people from outside of our area, exposing us to a greater risk of the virus.”

Bentley and other officials across the region are scrambling to figure out how exactly to comply with the governor’s most recent executive order, which overrides most local pandemic-related rules.

The governor’s office told Courthouse News on Tuesday that the order does apply to hotels.

“Hotels and motels have been an essential service, which (per the Governor’s EOs) means that local governments cannot restrict them,” Abbott spokesperson Nan Tolson said in an email. (Parentheses in original.)

Rod Ponton, who serves as the attorney for Presidio County and a number of small towns across the region, said in an interview that he was advising officials to let their local restrictions expire when the governor’s new rules take effect Friday.

“My initial thoughts are, open back up, let’s go to work,” he said.

Not everyone agrees that local officials have to play along on reopening hotels.

Businesses across Texas and the U.S. have been closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (Courthouse News photo/Travis Bubenik)

Teresa Todd, the attorney for the city of Marfa and neighboring Jeff Davis County, said her take on the governor’s most recent order was that local governments could extend their restrictions on hotels if they wanted to.

“What we intended isn’t always what we write,” Todd said of the governor’s order. “The governor quite honestly has not spoken to this, other than to say, hotels can house essential workers.”

As that budding local-versus-state conflict plays out, some hotels are itching to reopen.

“People have been clamoring to get out here,” said Randall Kinzie, owner of the small Stone Village Tourist Camp in Fort Davis.

While Kinzie said there is still lingering confusion from “gaps” in the governor’s order, he’s prepared to reopen with extra safety measures in place if and when he can, like screening guests and even rejecting some if they live in Covid-19 hot spots.

“We’re not going to say, ‘hey we’re open’ to El Paso, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin,” he said. “I’m going to book essential travelers and travelers who are not traveling from a highly-infected area.”

Still, one local health expert warned that it’s inevitable the virus will spread to Far West Texas as travel to and from the region increases.

“Obviously as we reopen, that makes me nervous,” said Ekta Escovar, a doctor on the local hospital’s coronavirus task force and the health authority for Brewster County. “We are still in the middle of a pandemic, we’re not over it.”

Robert Alvarez, who leads the tourism promotion council for Brewster County, downplayed the risks of reopening hotels.

“It’s not like the flood gates are going to be open and we’re going to have another spring break,” he said. “It’s going to be a trickle for a while, and I really predict that our tourism won’t be back to even some semblance of normal until the fourth quarter.”

The closures have indisputably hit the local economy hard. Alvarez said he would be surprised if a few hotels or motels didn’t close, costing jobs to locals.

“The economic damage is going to be much wider, broader and far-reaching than I think anyone ever expected,” he said.

“We’re devastated,” said Kinzie. “We’ve applied for every [Small Business Administration] loan available.”

It remains to be seen whether or when all hotels will actually choose to reopen, whether they’re allowed to soon, and when they’ll have guests knocking on their doors again.

“Once the data has proven that yea this thing really is in mitigation and on the decline, then there’s this economic picture of well, who can travel?” Kinzie said.

If tourism does start up again soon, according to Escovar, there will be an inherent tradeoff: locals will have to do more to protect themselves on an individual level, like regularly washing hands, wearing face masks and continuing to avoid public gatherings.

“The risk is there,” she said. “That means that we should do a little bit extra to keep ourselves safe, because we’re going to have people in our communities that are not from here and are maybe going to bring illnesses into our area.”

For now, Escovar cautioned that the entire conversation around how, or whether, hotels should start reopening could change in just a matter of days, when the results come in from coronavirus testing the Texas National Guard conducted this past weekend.

“I think that’s a really important data point,” she said. “If all those 184 tests come back negative, I think that means something pretty significant. If even a handful of those come back positive, then that also means something.”

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