MARFA, Texas (CN) — In some ways, it’s not surprising that large portions of the remote, borderlands region of far West Texas still have no confirmed coronavirus cases. After all, there just aren’t that many people.
Between the bustling international metroplex El Paso-Juárez to the west and the sister oilfield cities of Midland and Odessa to the east, the region’s few thousand residents mostly live in small towns separated by huge swaths of cattle country.
While those bigger cities continue to see increases in coronavirus cases and deaths, some of the towns between remain untouched — at least in terms of public health — after passing shelter-in-place orders and limiting business and travel.
Still, recent weeks have made clear that the Covid-19 disease doesn’t care much about geography. Parts of rural America have been hit hard, with the virus spreading fast in meatpacking plants and spiking in states like Oklahoma and Iowa that have resisted stay-at-home orders.
So, knock on wood, this corner of Texas has lucked out so far.
But as the state’s Republican governor moves to open up parts of the economy, reportedly as soon as Friday, local officials in West Texas are wrangling with the tricky question of whether to follow the governor’s lead or keep their guard up for longer.
“We’re not at a place where we should be reopening in large amounts,” said Ekta Escovar, a doctor on a local hospital’s coronavirus task force who was recently appointed the health authority for Brewster County, the state’s largest county by land mass.
In an interview, Escovar said the limited reopening measures announced by Governor Greg Abbott so far – loosening hospital restrictions, reopening state parks and allowing retail store pickups – are reasonable. But she cautioned against anything that might encourage people to travel into the region from other parts of the state.
“I think we need to be a little hyper vigilant beyond where the urban areas may be,” Escovar said. “In areas that have zero or just a handful of cases, that movement can have downstream effects that are much bigger for us versus in areas that already have a lot of [Covid-19] cases.”
In a radio interview Wednesday, Abbott suggested parts of the state that are free of confirmed cases could get back to some semblance of normal sooner than major urban centers.
“We are looking at counties where there have been like zero cases of [Covid-19] in a particular county, and these would be mostly rural counties, that they may be able to have an expanded version of being able to open up,” Abbott told KFYO host Chad Hasty.
A key question, of course, is whether zero really means zero.
Texas still has among the lowest levels of coronavirus testing in the U.S., while parts of the state’s far western region have only seen double-digit testing numbers. The Texas National Guard is scheduled to conduct drive-through testing across parts of West Texas this weekend, but the testing will be reserved for people with Covid-19 symptoms.
“I cannot stress enough that testing will not make us safer,” Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara said in an email Wednesday to local news outlets announcing the National Guard plan.
The county’s top elected official, Guevara warned the local community against feeling a “false sense of security.”
“As we move towards eventually opening up the local economy, we should in no way relax our efforts to reduce interaction with people and social distancing should be practiced until we have a vaccine,” she said. “As the urban areas see their areas with flattened curves after their peaks have come and gone, it could mean that our rural areas will be hit later and harder if we are not careful and relax our efforts.”
In Alpine, a town of about 6,000 people that in normal times is popular with visitors who flock to nearby Big Bend National Park, officials have adopted a “tiered” plan for reopening that mirrors guidelines from the White House. Under the plan, restrictions on businesses could be eased as the risk of the virus spreading from other parts of the state decreases.
“Our whole position all along has been following the governor’s lead on things,” said Alpine City Manager Erik Zimmer.
Still, Zimmer said, as local businesses open up, there will be a lingering risk of the virus popping up via the eventual return of tourists to the region, which might necessitate more expanded local restrictions.
“I think the western half of Texas is going to be an attraction for people,” he said. “People are going to look at the map that Johns Hopkins puts out [of coronavirus cases], they’re going to look to see what parts of the country have had less cases, and let’s go do a vacation there.”
That’s why the town’s plan calls for continued limits on how many guests hotels can have once they do reopen, along with requirements to screen visitors for symptoms of the virus before they book a room.
“You emphasize to those people that hey, look, if you’re feel sick, don’t come out,” Zimmer said.
Health experts stressed that as officials across the nation consider how, when and whether to reopen, more widespread testing will be key in guiding those decisions.
“We strongly advise don’t start too soon, and after you start, keep watching what’s going on and don’t assume that the virus is not there just because you don’t see any severe cases yet,” said Daniel Brailita, an infectious disease specialist in Nebraska, a state where some rural areas have seen spikes in coronavirus cases well above the national average.
“Everybody knows there is a risk” of reopening, Brailita said in an interview. “The White House, when they issued the guidelines reopening the country, they acknowledged there is a risk,” he said. “But we should be able to mitigate the risk if we do more testing and we open in an orderly fashion.”
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