Brewster County commissioners last week shut down all hotels, motels, and short-term rentals in the county, and Gage Hotel owner J.P. Bryan responded with a lawsuit in the 394th Judicial District court.
In an effort to rid the county of tourists and outsiders who might carry the coronavirus with them as they escaped urban areas, the commissioners court ordered everyone out by noon on March 23. Exceptions were later made for certain critical service personnel and those who had established a rental as their permanent residence, and still later for those who had already been in place for 14 days or more.
In defending his first-class Marathon establishment, Bryan named as defendants County Judge Eleazar Cano, Commissioners Betse Esparza, Sara Allen Collando, and Mike Pallanez, and Brewster County. Commissioner Ruben Ortega was not named in the suit. He had voted no on the court’s motion to close the county’s rental facilities.
Cited as factual background was Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s March 13 proclamation declaring a state of disaster for all counties, and it did not require or recommend Texas counties to close hotels. Nor did Abbott mandate or recommend that hotels be closed in his March 19 executive order regarding preparedness and mitigation.
The suit further alleges that insufficient notice of the meeting was provided to the public since there was no imminent threat to public health and safety, and no emergency or urgent public necessity was identified in the meeting notice.
The suit states that no evidence was presented to justify closing hotels, and the only lawful basis for doing so would have been evidence in the form of expert testimony that leaving hotels open would constitute a disaster.
It further states that as of March 21, there were no reported cases of COVID-19 in Brewster County. The only evidence presented at the March 20 emergency meeting was from Dr. Ekta Escovar of Alpine, a pediatrician affiliated with Big Bend Regional Medical Center, and the fact that she was neither a trained epidemiologist nor a physician whose specialty was infectious diseases.
According to the legal document, Escovar expressed her personal fears about COVID-19 without any scientific support, and should not be regarded as an expert. Further, she was not qualified to and did not express an opinion that leaving hotels open would constitute an imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life due to an epidemic in the county.
In closing, the lawsuit states that Brewster County and its commissioners closed the Gage Hotel with no advance notice and without any factual support, were personally liable for Bryan’s damages, and were not protected by official immunity.
In the suit, Bryan requested a temporary restraining order, temporary and permanent injunctions reversing and invalidating the commissioners’ actions, and a jury trial. He is requesting $100,000 or less in damages and non-monetary relief.
Austin attorney Francis S. Ainsa, Jr., El Paso attorney Carlos E. Cardenas, and Alpine attorney Elizabeth Rogers are representing Bryan in the action.