Virus reaches Marfa, remote artist hub in West Texas


‘Prada Marfa’ art installation in West Texas, 2014 photo by Nan Palmero, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – Texas surpassed 9,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients last week for the first time since a deadly summer outbreak as the pandemic’s spread threatened the Big Bend region near the desert artist hub of Marfa, where tourists continued visiting and officials urged people to stay home.

The rising number of cases near the remote West Texas town is but another example of how the virus is now spreading into places that ducked previous surges but are now ensnared by its long-reaching tentacles and confronted with its wide-ranging challenges.

Texas reported more than 15,000 new cases Tuesday, smashing the previous single-day record. State health officials attributed at least some of the spike to a lag in reporting over the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend, but doctors and local leaders still say they’re trending in the wrong direction.

Marfa is located about one hour’s drive from the Mexican border town of Ojinaga, and 200 miles (321.87 kilometers) from El Paso, where hospitalizations have fallen slightly after a grim November. With its population of roughly 1,700 people, Marfa is the second-largest town in Brewster County, where, in the past two weeks, the number of cases since the pandemic began has doubled to at least 460 confirmed cases, according to state health figures. The nearest hospital is 26 miles away, in Alpine.

“I feel safer going to the grocery store in Ojinaga than to the grocery store in Alpine,” said Malynda Richardson, the only paramedic in the city of Presidio, where she is also the director of emergency management services. She, too, recently tested positive for COVID-19.

Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara said that one in 13 people in the county have contracted COVID-19. She said the main concern for the county, which spans nearly 4,000 square miles (10,359.96 square kilometers), is that they do not have a hospital, so ill residents have to travel up to an hour or be flown out for critical care. Guevara attributes the spread to family gatherings, people visiting loved ones or doing business across the U.S.-Mexico border and those who have relaxed precautionary measures like masks and socially distancing when visiting loved ones. She has urged residents to shelter in place and avoid nonessential travel given the “alarming” hike in cases.

Although seemingly in the middle of nowhere, Marfa is a well-established cultural center for contemporary artists and artisans. In 1971, Minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to Marfa from New York. After renting summer houses for a few years, he bought two large hangars and some smaller buildings and began to permanently house his art.

In 1976, Judd bought the first of two ranches that became his primary places of residence, continuing a long love affair with the desert landscape surrounding Marfa. Later, with assistance from the Dia Art Foundation in New York, Judd acquired the decommissioned Fort D.A. Russell and began transforming the fort’s buildings into art spaces in 1979. Judd’s vision was to house large collections of individual artists’ work on permanent display, as a sort of anti-museum. Judd believed the prevailing model of a museum, where art is shown for short periods of time, does not allow the viewer an understanding of the artist or their work as they intended.

The region is known for its night-sky phenomenon known as the “Marfa ghost lights” and the pop art installation known as “Prada Marfa.” Several major motion pictures have been shot on location there, including No Country for Old Men and the 1956 classic Giant, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean.

Richardson said the increase in tourism in the area may be contributing to the spike in COVID-19 cases, observing that while people often socially distance in parks and hiking trails in the Big Bend region, they still visit restaurants, restrooms and gas stations in the nearby towns.


Downtown Marfa, Texas. Photo by Mathieu Lebreton, Paris, France; Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Big Bend National Park has seen a large increase in visitors during the coronavirus lockdown, with October recording some of the biggest numbers seen in the history of the park, said Tom Vandenberg, a park spokesman. He said the park is open at limited capacity and limits groups of eight but visitors may still find themselves searching for parking spots or sharing restrooms with other visitors.

“We are scared because our hospital is small, there is not good enough equipment if a person becomes severely ill,” said Laura Sanchez, 50, a retail worker in Alpine.

Sanchez said she blames the surge in Brewster, the surrounding county in Alpine, on family gatherings, tourism and people not taking the pandemic seriously and refusing to wear masks. She said in her Latino community, she has noticed many residents taking more precautions over fears of being sent far away for care.

Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine, a 25-bed facility with approximately 15 health care professionals on staff, said a lack of space has not been an issue so far. The hospital was treating four COVID-19 patients as of last week and had enough capacity for more, said Ruth Hucke, a hospital spokeswoman. She said no virus patients had died at the hospital within the last two weeks.

Texas is on the verge of 22,000 confirmed virus deaths, the second-highest in the country. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has ruled out a return to shutdown measures, saying local leaders instead need to enforce existing measures, such as limits on restaurant capacity.

Presidio Mayor John Ferguson said his small community has done a good job of following safety precautions but wants to see tougher restrictions as cases surge.

“It’s a sacrifice we should all be willing to make,” Ferguson said.


Associated Press

CATHERINE SAUNDERS-WATSON, Auction Central News International, contributed to this report.

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