Leaders step up restrictions as El Paso sees another record-high for Covid-19 infections

A sign over U.S. Route 54 in El Paso encourages social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Emily Kinskey for The Texas Tribune

By Julián Aguilar, Texas Tribune

EL PASO — City and county leaders here announced Thursday that they will increase restrictions for restaurants and some businesses as they report another record high for cases of the novel coronavirus.

El Paso’s public health department reported 717 new cases Thursday, setting a new daily record for the county. The county’s hospitalization rate, the percentage of hospital beds being used for COVID-19 patients, has also jumped to 28 percent. Of the 438 patients hospitalized, 111 are in intensive care, according to El Paso statistics.

Under the new restrictions, which begin Friday, nonessential businesses will be scaled back to allow 50% of their stated capacity, and restaurants can only offer take-out service after 9 p.m. Visits to nursing homes and elderly care facilities are put on hold, and outdoor gatherings are limited to 10 people or fewer. The new guidelines also temporarily ban indoor sports and spectators from outdoor sporting events, with the exception of collegiate sports at the University of Texas El Paso and the city’s minor league soccer team, the El Paso Locomotive FC.

The new measures come about a week after Mayor Dee Margo and other officials pleaded with community members to shake off “COVID fatigue” and continue to practice safety measures. Margo said Thursday during a news conference that he had no choice but to impose the restrictions.

“We are not statistics. We come up here and we talk about the number of hospitalizations, the number of positive [cases] and the number in ICU, [but] we’re people and we need to protect our people,” he said. “And the only way we’re going to protect them is by wearing face coverings and maintaining the distancing and washing your hands frequently. I just encourage, implore, beg whatever it takes, please El Paso – do what you need to do.”

The restrictions come during an early voting period that has seen massive turnout in many Texas cities, including El Paso. Margo said the restrictions do not apply to voting sites as “safety protocols have been issued and are being followed by the county elections department.”

Angela Mora, the director of the El Paso Public Health Department, said contact tracing is an ongoing struggle in the city as some COVID-19 patients or others deemed high risk are refusing to cooperate. She said if a person doesn’t respond to contact tracing requests after two days, a city employee and a local police officer will hand-deliver a health order and warn of a possible fine.

“The letter states that if they are not following the quarantine and isolation orders, they will be fined $500,” she said.

Mora and Margo added that more than half of the cases are among El Pasoans between 20 and 49.

“We make a call to the millennials and all the other people out there partying and wearing their masks on their necks to please listen and work with us,” Mora said.

The spike in cases in El Paso comes about one month after Gov. Greg Abbott lifted statewide restrictions in most counties to allow certain businesses and restaurants to increase capacity to 75 percent. Margo said Thursday that he’s talked to the governor about the city’s new restrictions and that Abbott didn’t voice any concerns.

“We’ve been in constant contact with the governor, and he knows exactly what we have implemented this morning. We’re fine,” Margo said.

During a news conference Thursday in El Paso to announce a Texas Supreme Court pick, Abbott was asked about El Paso’s restrictions and said the mayor is acting within his authority.

“Local officials do have levels of flexibility to make sure they are able to contain the spread of COVID-19, and it appears that is exactly what Mayor Margo is doing,” Abbott said.

On Monday, the governor announced the state was sending a team of 75 additional medical personnel to the area to help local officials treat patients. The reinforcements arrived earlier this week, Margo said.

The mayor is also waiting to hear from the Texas Education Agency on whether local school districts will be allowed to further delay in-school instruction.

“The schools are determining what they want to do,” Margo said. “I was asked to intercede and support their position related to delaying going back to the classroom.”