'I'll never wear a mask.' 4 West Texas counties have less than 5 cases of COVID-19
Mozelle Carr grew up in the City of Mentone, the only town in Loving County, Texas, and the only community in the state that appears immune from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today she serves as clerk for both the county and its district courthouse, and said she enjoyed the open spaces as a child which stretch for miles.
Most of the local children grow up riding horses, hunting hogs and pheasant. They join 4-H and play freely in the Pecos River. The roads in Mentone were just recently fully paved by the county, using money brought in from a recent oil boom.
"It's like most of Texas, very friendly," Carr said. "You know everybody. If you live here a long time, you know all the families."
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That remoteness and far-flung nature of Mentone could be its saving grace amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Carr said, but with cases of the virus appearing to increase in counties surrounding the community, she said residents must remain vigilant to prevent the virus from taking over their idyllic, rustic home.
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“We haven’t had any cases reported here as of yet,” Carr said. “That could change. There are reasons for it. We don’t have a hospital.”
People in Loving County, Texas, travel out of their community every day for food and other necessities, even during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Those who live in the community bordering New Mexico do not have their own grocery store, hospital or school.
The county is one of the U.S.’s least populated with about 170 residents and one of Texas’ smallest spanning about 670 square miles.
And while the county has recorded no cases of COVID-19 from only seven tests since the pandemic struck the U.S. in March, the transient nature of the area could put it at risk for future outbreaks of the virus.
Aside from shopping, education and healthcare, the county also sees many oil and gas workers traveling in and out from other parts of Texas or even across state lines to and from New Mexico to work throughout the Permian Basin.
Other Texas counties saw similar risks
Three other counties in West Texas saw similar risks despite less than five COVID-19 cases as of Oct. 13 throughout the almost eight months of the pandemic.
They all had populations less than 1,000 people and share a similar culture to Loving County of inter-county and inter-state travel to big box stores and other facilities in neighboring cities.
King County, about 300 miles northeast of Loving County, reported just one case and 13 tests, according to data provided by state health officials. It has a population of 277 people in 913 square miles.
About 177 miles northeast of Loving County, Borden County’s numbers were identical to King County among its population of 648 people.
In Terrell County, 220 miles southeast of Loving with a population of 823, three cases were reported from 24 tests.
The rural, remote communities could face such low numbers because of low testing. Larger urban areas in West Texas saw positive case counts ranging from 75 cases in Culberson County, neighboring Loving, to more than 4,000 in Midland County and more than 14,000 in Lubbock County.
In Lubbock County, state records show more than 58,000 COVID-19 tests were conducted, while Midland had 16,000 tests.
And just over the border, cases are on the rise in New Mexico, which reported its highest-ever statewide increase of 577 on Oct. 14.
Eddy and Lea counties, known for heavy oil and gas operations and travel into West Texas, have regularly reported daily, double-digit increases in COVID-19 cases throughout the summer and fall.
In total, Eddy and Lea have 1,064 and 1,684 cases, respectively.
Both counties are listed as "red counties" by New Mexico health officials, meaning they're under stricter regulations than other parts of the state such as a ban on in-person school.
Travel from "at risk" states, including Texas, was restricted by New Mexico health officials and those who choose to do so must quarantine for 14 days upon returning to the state.
Anton Lara, public information officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services said the more rural areas pose less risk to residents being exposed to COVID-19 by their remote nature.
But residents of all regions of the state should remain cautious, he said, and follow public health guidelines.
“These counties are very rural and likely have less opportunities for exposure than those in more densely populated areas,” Lara said. “We want all residents to be aware of the symptoms of COVID-19 and to follow all of the precautions like handwashing and wearing a mask around people who aren’t in their household.”
No COVID-19 cases…yet
Carr said that while no cases were recorded in the Loving County, an oilfield worker living in a nearby man camp was sent home to Colorado to quarantine after a positive test came back, and a college student in Dallas from Mentone later tested positive.
A woman from Mentone was previously hospitalized in Dallas and recently was tested for the virus and was awaiting the results.
Positive tests are attributed to counties in Texas based on the address assigned on a patient’s driver’s license and Carr worried the policy could fail to reflect where the person lives and could spread COVID-19.
Most people in Loving County are well spread out, she said, and spend most of their time working outside.
They attend church outside of the county which also lacks any bars or assisted living homes for seniors.
The public school district in Loving County was recently consolidated with the district in Winkler County, and children are bused back and forth for classes.
“We don’t have any places for people to gather,” Carr said. “We’re wide open spaces out here.”
To keep the county’s numbers low, the courthouse was closed to the public, face masks were worn at public meetings although the State of Texas does not require them in counties with less than 20 case of COVID-19.
Around town, mask wearing is mixed, Carr said, as many opt to forgo face coverings intended to protect them and others spreading the virus.
“Some people just won’t wear a mask. They will not,” she said. “We do practice social distancing, but I feel like we’ll have more reports.”
Reports could increase instep with testing in Loving County, as a clinic was recently built by local oil companies and recently gained rapid testing capabilities along with a ventilator installed in an ambulance.
Carr said she’s heard that a second wave of the virus could be possible later this year and hoped her community she’s called home for more than 60 years will be vigilant.
“I’ve read about the Spanish Flu and how it came in waves,” Carr said. “It could affect isolated towns like ours. It could happen to us if we let our guard down. Hopefully, they’ll find a vaccine by then.”
As the country awaits a resolution to COVID-19, business sputtered at Mentone’s only restaurant.
Alba’s was once packed all day as workers flowed in and out of the town which served as a crossroads for oil and gas workers while the industry boomed in the Permian last year.
Cashier Nathalie Zapata said since the pandemic struck, traffic through the town dwindled.
She said she commutes to Mentone from Pecos, and back again, every day to work and used to have to wait 30 minutes just to pull out onto the highway.
Now her trip home is quicker, she said, but it came at a cost.
The restaurant laid off one of its cooks and a prep cook, leaving Zapata and the sole chef as the restaurant’s only employees.
“It’s just been really slow. The traffic used to be so busy,” she said. “We haven’t seen much lately. We were always very packed. We’d get stuck on the interstate trying to go home.”
COVID-19 a big city problem for some communities
Jamie Green defied health officials from the beginning of the pandemic.
She's never worn a face mask and she said she never will.
The sales clerk at the 6666 Supply House in Guthrie, Texas, said she informs masked customers that they too may pass on wearing face coverings when they enter the general store — one of the few businesses in King County.
King is one of four Texas counties with less than five cases of COVID-19 cases recorded since the pandemic hit Texas and the U.S. in March and conducted just 13 tests since April.
As the rest of the nation struggled to recover from the deadly virus while it spread from state to state, Green said it wasn't Guthrie's problem.
“Nobody did the social distancing, and it’s been great,” she said. “We didn’t panic and start freaking out. We just kept living life. You do the same precautions as you would with the flu. You wash your hands, and if you don’t feel well you stay home.”
Green said she travels to neighboring Childress County with a population of about 7,300 and 85 cases of COVID-19 to shop for groceries at the local Walmart, skipping bigger cities like Lubbock and Abilene where she fears the dense populations could prove a greater risk.
It's easy to avoid large, urban crowds for people in Guthrie, Green said, as they don't need or want the trappings of big cities, which has come to include COVID-19.
“There’s less than 300 people in the county. That probably makes a big a difference,” Green said. “But I haven’t worn a mask yet, and the only way I would is if I had a medical emergency.”
COVID-19 doesn’t seem like a major issue to Gennie Merrifield either.
She works at Uncle’s of Sanderson, a general store that also serves as the local gas station.
Sanderson is the county seat and only official town in Terrell County.
Merrifield said she hasn’t seen anyone suffering from COVID-19, and the health crisis has not impacted her businesses at all.
The pandemic could have even improved business as less locals traveled out of the county and thus frequented Uncle’s, Merrifield said.
“It’s pretty much business as usual out here,” she said. “We’re pretty isolated from the rest of the country.”
The more crowded municipalities see higher case numbers, Merrifield said, due to higher population density.
Just like crime, she said.
“With more people there would be more cases. The populations are denser,” Merrifield said. “More people; more cases. It’s the same with crime. We don’t really have any crime around here because there’s not a lot of people.”
Even as Texas’ most remote areas see lower COVID-19 numbers than the rest of the country, Merrifield wants the crisis to end and quell local fears that crept even into the isolated community despite a lack of cable TV and the rare internet connection.
“I think it’s media driven. I hope it ends soon,” she said. “People are frightened. I think we’d like for people to not be so scared.”
But with the pandemic worsening around these oases of country life, places like Mentone and Guthrie could soon be united with their big-city counterparts in infection of COVID-19. What's at stake could be the very way of life in Texas' tiny rural communities. Carr said Mentone was the perfect place to raise children far from the stresses of the big cities.
"I was raised here. I had a great childhood. You can roam here forever," she said. "Like most areas out here, West Texas was one of the last places to get coronavirus. It's clean living."
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.