MARFA, Texas — The night before Thanksgiving, an electric sign appeared in the window of a crumbling adobe structure in Marfa. “Everyone here hates you,” the sign scolded, specifically addressing the tourists who had traveled to the art oasis despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
The sign, made from electroluminescent wire that mimics the Instagram-friendly glow of neon, was made by local artists Chris Ramming and Rob Brill. In another window of the abandoned structure, which is actually the exhibition space of the artist collective Z Ranch, a poster elaborated: “This town chooses your dollars over the safety of the people who live here.”
“That’s an aggressive statement, and it is definitely an anti-tourist statement, but it’s also how I feel,” Ramming explained during a video call with Hyperallergic. “I feel a lot of times everyone hates everybody in this town. Locals hate the tourists and the old-time locals hate me.”
Currently, West Texas is the state’s COVID-19 hotspot. Leading up to Thanksgiving, Presidio County, where Marfa is situated, had the most cases per capita. Marfa doesn’t have a hospital, and free COVID-19 testing only comes to town every two to four weeks. Those who fall seriously ill need to travel nearly 190 miles to Midland or El Paso for proper care, and in those cities, ICU beds are nearly full.
Ramming, who runs Casita Bar, voluntarily closed his business in March to prioritize his neighbors’ safety. The Chinati Foundation, which holds Donald Judd’s collection of metal and concrete sculptures and is one of the town’s most popular attractions, is closed for the rest of the year. Other businesses, like Shy Marfa, have vacated their brick-and-mortar spaces and shifted to operating online for the foreseeable future. But Marfa’s economy heavily relies on tourism, and many other businesses have stayed open and welcomed tourists with open arms.
“It’s frustrating to see other people profiting on this and not doing what they could be doing to help protect this community,” Ramming said.
Restless tourists have descended to Marfa and the surrounding Big Bend region, hoping that a rural escape might mean minimum exposure to the virus. Marfa’s restaurants are buzzing, hotels are at capacity, and in October, Big Bend National Park, a popular pit stop for Marfa weekenders, reported a 20% increase in visitors compared to this time last year.
Marfa has established safety guidelines in step with the governor’s recommendations. Galleries, shops, restaurants, and bars are allowed to be open as long as everyone wears a mask indoors; indoor capacity is limited; and dining establishments seat patrons at least six feet apart. But according to Ramming and Brill, these guidelines aren’t enforced.
“The least that we can do right now is let people know that it’s really not safe to come here,” said Brill. “I love so many people in this community and they’re at actual risk of dying so that somebody can get an enchilada from a fancy restaurant.”
Not everyone in Marfa, however, feels that their ire should be placed on outsiders. Rob Crowley, who runs the website Marfa Tourism, wrote over email, “Travelers coming into Marfa can most definitely spread covid just as travelers from Marfa can bring it home.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Crowley explained, the county commissioner’s court and city council ordered that hotels and Airbnbs had to shut down for two months; during that time frame, Marfa didn’t report any cases. Since relaxing restrictions in late May, however, Presidio county has reported over 400 cases.
Still, Crowley believes the press and local government have created a false sense of security among irresponsible locals. “Most tourists are careful and thoughtful and wear their masks. Many locals do not wear a mask with their friends and families,” Cralwey wrote. “As a remote community, most locals travel to bigger cities on a regular basis for shopping and healthcare. Many extended families have relations throughout the region. The first known case in the county [reported May 23], indeed came from this type of situation.”
While Ramming understands that tourists aren’t solely to blame, he maintains that catering to the industry puts everyone in Marfa at risk: “I just think you can have a tourist economy and not exploit the citizens that live in that town.”
Even as businesses keep operating during the pandemic, Ramming and Brill hope that their art will lead a cultural shift. “We live in this tiny rural place, but we have an international voice,” Ramming said. “If anywhere should be speaking up, it’s a town like this.”