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Coronavirus in Texas

Midland confronts coronavirus after oil prices plummet

The city’s new mayor is struggling to inspire in a moment of overlapping crises.

Midland Mayor Patrick Payton.

MIDLAND — Mayor Patrick Payton struggles to sleep these days, and on a recent evening, his blood pressure was so high when he arrived home from a day at City Hall that all he could do was lie down and stare at the ceiling, trying to find even a fleeting moment of peace, a sense that it was all going to be okay.

Instead, he just felt sick. “You feel nauseous all the time,” he said. “But I am certain every mayor is going through this.”

Payton, 52, is a man who normally radiates positivity, a former pastor who leans heavily on his faith. When he ran for the job last fall, part of his platform was about encouraging the people of this remote west Texas oil town, the heart of the state’s energy-production region, to think more highly of themselves and their city, to value what they did aboveground as much as the work they did below.

But what has happened here over the last several weeks has tested even him. An oil-price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia sent the cost of West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark crude, plummeting — falling from about $53 a barrel month ago to as low as $20 in recent days.

Literally overnight, the energy industry in the Permian Basin, where Midland is located and which accounts for about a third of all U.S. oil production, began to shut down. Hundreds of workers were immediately laid off; rigs and production work were idled.

In a region where nearly every aspect of industry is touched in some way by the energy sector, fear quickly spread among those here who remember all too well the oil bust of the 1980s, when tens of thousands of people lost their livelihoods and struggled for years to recover.

“It was like a switch flipped,” Payton recalled. When he went to bed March 8, Midland was okay, in the midst of an oil boom that had transformed this city of about 173,000 — up 29 percent since 2018, one of the fastest rates in the country, according to the Census Bureau. There were new housing additions, new hotels, a Mercedes-Benz dealership, even a Pure Barre studio — fancy for a town often written off as a less cosmopolitan cousin to Dallas or Houston.

The next morning, things were in free fall. “We woke up to the industry shutting down, and that’s not exaggeration,” Payton said. Workers began lining up for unemployment, and long lines of cars formed at the West Texas Food Bank. The economy was tanking in ways unseen for decades. “The old phrase of ‘on our knees’ would be an understatement,” he said.

And this was before the new coronavirus began spreading toward his city.

Although there have been just eight cases of the deadly virus in Midland County and one death as of Friday, many believe there are probably more local cases that haven’t been diagnosed, given the slow speed of testing.

Cities across Texas have shuttered their restaurants, except for takeout, and closed nonessential businesses. But many residents have ignored social-distancing guidelines, congregating in parks and shopping in close proximity to one another at the few stores that are open.

On Wednesday afternoon, after the city reported its first case of community spread, Payton went before cameras and pleaded for people in his town to stay at home and away from one another to protect themselves and their city. “How many people have to get sick and die before we take this seriously?” Payton demanded, his face almost ashen. “How sick do people have to get? How many deaths do we have to have before we all decide this is serious?”

“It will be less serious here than it has been the rest of the country if we will practice the self-sacrifice to stay where we need to stay, which is staying at home and not getting out and being in places that are unnecessary,” he added.

But Payton’s remarks were carried live by just one local television station. The others stayed with regular programming, including “The People’s Court” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

More people will get sick, but what worries Payton and other local officials across the region is what happens next. The energy industry was already cratering before the coronavirus, and the pandemic is almost certain to make things worse. This week, a study from the Brookings Institution identified Midland as the most vulnerable city in the country to a coronavirus recession, with 43 percent of its jobs identified as being part of “high risk” sectors, including the energy, transportation and hospitality industries.

What concerns Payton is how laid-off residents will cope. He has consulted in recent days with area physicians about the “emotional and psychological toll” on those who live in his community and what more they can do. He worries depression could end up claiming more lives than the coronavirus. Many laid-off oil workers have nowhere to go to find new jobs, and they are being asked to shelter at home.

“At any other time in our nation’s history … when there have been economic collapses, you could at least go to the gym and work out. You could go to your favorite restaurant and sit with your friends and enjoy a drink. You could do those things. Now you can’t,” Payton said. “There is no outlet. … There is no place to even reconnect with humanity.”

Payton, who was sworn in only in January, is just beginning to figure out how to answer those questions of what this means and how he can help people. He tries to be encouraging, to urge people to have faith that it will all work out and be okay. But he is grappling with those things himself.

As a pastor for 21 years, he helped many families through unspeakable tragedy. “When I used to do funerals, especially of young children or something like that, I would always just take the rest of the day off and just try to decompress from the tragedy,” he said. “This is the same feeling. It’s the same emotion.”

But there was no time to process, no time to rest, because everything was happening so fast.

Midland is smaller than New York or New Orleans or San Francisco or any of the litany of cities that have been upended by the coronavirus. But he knows what they are feeling and the things they are all doing to make some little bit of difference — such as making sure the water stays on, the trash gets picked up, the streetlights stay lit.“You fight for every bit of positivity you can,” he said. “That’s all you can do."

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