Towns near Big Bend notice spike in tourists, then COVID-19; warn future visitors about strained resources

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Out in West Texas, tourism destinations are becoming COVID-19 infection hotspots.

The counties surrounding Big Bend National Park have nearly 700 active cases, which may not sound significant, until you look at the population.

Per capita, the rate of active cases in Brewster and Presidio Counties are comparable to the COVID-19 active case rate in El Paso, the worst hot spot in the state right now.

Locals are pointing to an influx in tourists in recent weeks, which business owners like Kate Calder have noticed.

“People are sick of staying in their house. So they’re like, ‘Oh, there’s a national park, you know, five hours away. So let’s head out to get some fresh air,’ but they have to remember that that does cause a strain on all the small local towns that are out here,” Calder said.

She said she’s had many candid conversations with recent tourists shopping at her store, Communitie, who had no idea how strained the region already is.

“People do not realize we do not have medical facilities that big metropolitan cities have to take on this,” Calder explained. “A lot of people that visit the Marfa area or the Big Bend region don’t realize that we do have a small Medical Center in Alpine, Texas, which is 30 minutes away from Marfa…. and it doesn’t really have the capabilities to take care of any severe COVID patients.”

The hospitals in the same trauma service area as the Big Bend region are in Midland-Odessa, about a three-hour drive from Marfa. There, hospitals have been near or at capacity for weeks.

“Over the last two or three weeks, we have not been able to take a whole lot of patients from outlying areas, because we’ve been so full,” Dr. Rohith Saravanan, Chief Medical Officer at the Odessa Regional Medical Center, explained.

The Chief Nursing Officer at the neighboring Medical Health Center System said they’re facing the same issue.

“We’ve normally take anything and everything. And we’ve been put in a situation where now we have to tell them, ‘I need you to hang on to your patients a little bit longer,’ than what we would have eight months ago. So it’s very difficult to not be able to help them as much as we were helping them,” CNO Christin Timmons explained.

But the small communities in the Big Bend region also depend on tourism.

“It’s the double-edged sword,” Calder said, “Other, you know, business owners in town that we’re all trying to just hang on, and do our business, if we so feel comfortable in the safest possible way.”

Jeanine Bishop, owner of the Humane Society’s thrift store in nearby Alpine, said she’s also noticed the increase.

“On Tuesday, Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we doubled our typical sales in the store those two days, we talked to those people, they were almost 100% from out of town visiting this area,” Bishop said.

Bishop’s nonprofit has felt that double-edged sword, directly.

“I’ve had to layoff my staff. So now just my assistant and I running our thrift store, which puts us out there facing the public,” Bishop explained.

She said she’s also seen some more pushback against these tourists due to the surge. Some, on social media, even calling them ‘tourons,’ a combination of tourists and morons.

“We even have said that before the pandemic, it’s the careless tourists that come out here, you know, during wildfire season and, and want to camp fire, you know,” she explaiend.

Calder has noticed signs around Marfa as well.

“I saw a poster when I was walking my dog the other morning that said tourism kills,” she said.

But with no lockdown in sight, and more visitors expected around Christmas and New Year’s, locals just hope for the best.

“I just hope people are quarantining and getting healthy and getting a negative test and we can get these numbers down as soon as possible,” Calder said.