Will the ‘Town Too Tough to Die’ survive the coronavirus pandemic?

Updated: Jul. 31, 2020 at 10:44 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - As the coronavirus continues to spread through Arizona, we’ve learned no community is immune to its impact.

That includes Tombstone.

When you walk through the western town south of Tucson, you take a step back in time.

“I have more stories than you can imagine,” said Mayor Dusty Escapule.

Escapule is a fourth-generation Tombstone resident, born and raised. He’s been the mayor of Tombstone since 2000 and is running for his seventh term.

“One of the things that I thought I would never see, which my granddad told me about, was during the Great Depression. How Tombstone was so slow that there was nobody here,” said Mayor Escapule. “I never thought I would see that in my lifetime, but unfortunately, I have witnessed that in the last five months.”

Escapule said Gov. Doug Ducey’s first stay-at-home order, issued in March, shut down the town. The order stopped tourists from traveling, silencing the sounds of gun shows, music from saloons and the laughter from smiling visitors.

“It was like a ghost town and it was kinda eerie, scary,” Escapule said. “As I say, the only thing I saw moving was tumbleweeds on the street.”

Slowly, some foot traffic has returned to Allen Street, but the saloons where Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp enjoyed a drink were still closed this week due to the governor’s ordered closures of bars with a series 6 liquor license.

“These little places like Tombstone that really depend on three businesses as a big amount of our sales tax revenue, they get shut down, it hurts us. It hurts us bad,” Escapule said.

According to officials, it’s estimated the town lost about 55% of its revenue in sales tax in April compared to the same time last year. Here is a closer look at revenue estimates compared to 2019:

- February (before COVID-19): 10.2% increase

- March: 21% decrease

- April: 55% decrease

- May: 42% decrease

- June: 41% decrease

July had not been reported to the state when the data was shared with KOLD News 13.

“It makes you very concerned about the future,” said Debbie Mangels, General Manager at T. Miller’s Tombstone Mercantile & Hotel & Ice Cream Parlor.

Mangels said the pandemic put a pause on any customers coming through the store. She said news of the first shutdown shook the town and its residents.

“Absolutely petrifying because we are totally dependent on tourism and to find out you are absolutely, positively not essential, is not very heartwarming,” Mangels said.

About 1,300 people call the historic town home. According to Escapule, most residents are retired, which could put them in a “high-risk” category for contracting the virus.

The mayor said there have been “some” cases of COVID-19 in the town, but couldn’t go into specifics. He wasn’t sure if contact tracing efforts are underway.

The Arizona Department of Health Services reports more than 1,500 cases and 48 deaths in Cochise County.

According to the AZDHS zip code tracking map, less than 10 cases have been reported in Tombstone’s zip code.

There was a sign on a storefront requiring masks to enter, but Escapule said he felt a mandate would be “unenforceable.” Cochise County does not have a countywide mask requirement and, even after calls from local leaders, Gov. Ducey never issued a statewide mandate.

“I would like to think the citizens of Tombstone, the merchants and visitors are responsible enough to take care of themselves,” Escapule said.

He said the town is sanitizing benches and other public areas three times a day. When there are gun shows in the street, they work to spread out spectators to keep the six-foot recommendation for social distancing.

The extra steps in health and safety protocols are also something the mayor is factoring in. He said the town has a balanced budget, with priorities in funding for first responders, including the Marshals Office and fire department.

“We’ve been pretty thrifty on how we spend our money and what we spend it on,” Escapule said. “I think for this next fiscal year we would be good if we stayed as we are right now.”

“The only thing I tell every customer is thank you for coming, you have no idea how much that means to us because these people that are coming are keeping us alive,” Mangels said.

Although Arizona’s bars, gyms and nightclubs are closed and health officials stress it is “safer at home,” taking a trip could be what helps Tombstone survive.

“Everybody was concerned as to whether or not they would be able to survive this and we’re still not out of it,” Escapule said. “We’ll make it. I’m worried, but we will make it. I’ll tell you that much.”

The annual “Doc Holli-Days” is still scheduled for August. The mayor said the event will be “scaled way back.”

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