Mr. Galan, from Eagle Pass near Texas’ border with Mexico, said he usually spent about 12 days working and then got four days off. He counted himself lucky to be only five hours away from his family. Some workers come from much further, like Utah or Louisiana.
While in Loving County, Mr. Galan lived in a man camp on his company’s property, sharing a small living space with another worker. He said the workers there practiced social distancing. “On our yard, nobody’s gotten sick from Covid,” he said.
But, he added, no one was being tested unless they had symptoms. “They don’t test you just to test you,” Mr. Galan said. For that, workers must travel to larger cities like Odessa or Midland.
A private health clinic offers coronavirus tests and performs around 20 per week, according to Anthony Luk, 28, a paramedic there. Mr. Luk, like most workers in the county, lives in a trailer — his is attached to the clinic — and stays for two-week stints between periods of rest at home in Lubbock.
During his time there, he said, the clinic has had two positive tests for the coronavirus: in August, involving the man camp near the center of Mentone, and another taken at a job site outside of Loving County.
The August case raised alarm at the county courthouse because clerks and other county workers often go to the camp for free lunch on workdays.
“We’re made very known when something like that happens here,” said Angela Medlin, 31, a deputy county clerk who moved with her husband and four children to Mentone last year. “I know of at least one guy who was sick, but they took him back to where he’s from,” she said, recalling the situation over the summer.
In town, residents draw a bright line between themselves and the visiting workers. Those who live in the county full-time treat one another like members of an extended family bubble.
At the courthouse, a square brick building from 1935, the doors are now locked to outsiders and the county employees do not wear masks. When someone comes to visit, like a landman looking into new oil or gas leases, the person must have an appointment and wear a mask.
A Halloween party for the children in town attracted about 60 people and included temperature checks at the door. People felt comfortable not wearing masks.
But there are few such gatherings in Mentone, where the county’s history of oil booms and busts can be read in hollow rusting storage tanks, empty corrugated homes and the cracked plaster of the only schoolhouse, unused for decades.
“When we got here, I said, ‘Punk, how long are we going to live in this godforsaken place?’” recalled Mary Belle Jones, 89, who moved to Loving County in 1953 with her husband, Elgin Jones.