Life in Rural Texas — Without Coronavirus

Twenty-four of the state’s 254 counties have reported no cases of Covid-19.

The Stonewall County Courthouse, in Aspermont, Texas. (Wikipedia image/Geoffrey Long)

HOUSTON (CN) — Kenedy County, Texas, is up front about its lack of accommodations. Large signs on its main highway, U.S. Route 77, say there are no services for 60 or 70 miles. There are no restaurants, gas stations or barbershops, no businesses at all, in the county seat Sarita.

“I would say out of every 1,000 cars maybe one would pull over. It depends what time of year it is. It’s so small that if you are driving at 80 or 90 mph and you blink your eyes, you’ll miss the whole town,” said Kenedy County’s emergency management coordinator Tomás Sanchez.

Most of the unincorporated South Texas town’s 200-some-odd residents work at one of the four ranches that own most of the land in the county — including the 825,000-acre King Ranch, the biggest ranch in Texas — with younger generations following the tradition of their elders.

The Texas National Guard set up a mobile testing site for coronavirus there recently and 20 people showed up. All their tests came back negative for Covid-19, Sanchez said. No one in the county has tested positive for the virus.

Sanchez, 77, believes the fact there is nowhere to stop in Sarita, aside from a museum housed in a former courthouse, has kept the virus at bay.

Kenedy County is one of 24 counties in Texas with no documented cases.

Borden County is another. The county and its seat, Gail, 70 miles south of Lubbock, were named after Gail Borden, the inventor of condensed milk.

Borden County Judge Ross Sharp.

Borden County Judge Ross Sharp, 65, said the National Guard did tests in Gail a few weeks ago. “They set up for a 10-hour day and they tested two people. I don’t even know if those people were from our county,” he said. 

County judges in Texas are chief administrators. In bigger counties they do not preside over law courts, but in small counties like Borden, they handle misdemeanor courts, probate and some civil cases.

“I’ve been a county judge for a little over 10 years and I’ve not had a trial setting yet,” Sharp said.

He said the minor charges that come before him “like your second DUI, maybe a trespassing charge or something like that” are worked out with plea deals.

No Borden County residents have tested positive for the virus.

(Photo courtesy of Judge Ross Sharp)

“I guess we could consider it a blessing to live where we do,” Sharp said. “We’re about 640 people in the whole county. Around 900 square miles of area. Social distancing out here is probably more of the normal than it would be an exception, for sure. If it’s not Friday night football, people pretty much tend to business and go about their daily routines.”

The high school football field will host one of the town’s biggest gatherings in months on Friday night, when 22 seniors will receive their diplomas.

Sharp said he does not wear a mask, but he takes other measures when he’s out with his wife. “I look at a parking lot when I drive up and if it’s awful crowded, we’ll just back away and we’ll come back at a different time,” he said.

Gail is not far from the Permian Basin oilfields of West Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Sharp said the oilfield workers who frequent Gail’s two small diners are cause for concern.

“A lot of those guys will stop and eat breakfast. Or they’ll stop and get a burrito for the road. … Those folks are the ones that are concerning to me. Because you don’t where they’ve come from, where they’ve been, what they’ve been exposed to and unknowingly. That’s the sad part about it; the majority of this stuff is transmitted unknowingly.”

If travelers want a beer they won’t find anything on tap in Gail. Borden County is one of six dry counties in Texas.

Sharp does not drink alcohol and he believes the prohibition tamps down DWIs, public intoxication and family violence. “It’s just a good Christian community. Not to say that we don’t have drinkers here,” he said.

Besides, since there are no grocery stores in the county, residents have to drive 30 miles to another county to buy food at stores that sell beer.

“So it’s not like it’s really an inconvenience for anybody because they have to drive to get a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk anyway. I’m sure most of them prefer to get it out of county; that way their neighbor doesn’t know,” he said with a laugh.

Limited testing in some Texas counties may explain their lack of cases.

That reasoning does not apply to Stonewall County, population 1,362, where County Judge Ronnie Moorhead said all the personnel of the hospital in the county seat Aspermont have been tested, and the National Guard has done two rounds of tests for the general public.

“So far we’ve not had an active case,” Moorhead said.

Like Sharp, Moorhead believes if the virus does get a foothold in the town, where four state highways converge, it will be transmitted by a traveler.

“We’ve got a very popular convenience store here in town that a lot of transit traffic stops at,” he said.

Hunting is big in Stonewall County — deer, turkey, javelina, dove and quail. “Almost every acre in the county is leased in some form or another for hunting,” Moorhead said.

In a stay-at-home order he issued on March 27 to protect county residents, the majority of whom are elderly, he limited those who could be on hunting leases to the property owners and caretakers.

Had he not restricted hunting, he said, the number of people in the county would have doubled or tripled on the opening weekend of turkey season, which ran from March 30 to May 12.

“Well, that’s putting our residents at a high risk. Because when the hunters come in, they don’t stay on the leases. They come into town, they go buy groceries and supplies.”

Moorhead, 74, was born and raised in Stonewall County, which is 60 miles north of Abilene. He laughed when asked what the county’s main industries are.

“Oh, we don’t have any industries. Our county it’s oil and farming and ranching. It’s just family owned mostly mom-and-pop stores,” he said.  

Moorhead savors the laid-back lifestyle of rural Texas, sitting on the patio of his home in the country, watching wildlife. “I don’t much appreciate when the hogs show up. But I love watching the deer and turkey out there around my place,” he said.

Despite Stonewall County’s lack of Covid-19 cases, Moorhead said he does not think it is in the clear.  

He sees the reports about people flocking to beaches on the Texas Gulf Coast and city-dwelling Texans gathering at pools and bars, and it worries him.

“I think they are being foolish. … People are just taking too many chances right now,” he said.

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