Judge upholds El Paso business restrictions amid virus surge

Sasha Jacquez tests The University of Texas at El Paso student Ariona Gill for coronavirus Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, at the UTEP Fox Fine Arts Center in El Paso, Texas. Deaths per day from the coronavirus in the U.S. are on the rise again, just as health experts had feared, and cases are climbing in nearly every single state. In El Paso, authorities instructed people to stay home for two weeks and imposed a 10-p.m.-to-5-a.m. curfew because of a surge that has overwhelmed hospitals. (Mark Lambie/The El Paso Times via AP)

By ACACIA CORONADO Report for America/Associated Press

A Texas district judge on Friday upheld an order from El Paso County’s top elected official shutting down businesses while the region fights an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases.

The decision from Judge Bill Moody of El Paso’s 34th District Court came as federal military medical teams deployed to the border region at the request of the state.

The county’s top elected official, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, ordered a two-week shutdown of nonessential activities late last week.

In making his decision, Moody pointed out that during the Spanish flu pandemic in the early part of the 20th century, city and county elected officials had authority to respond as they “thought was necessary to protect the health and financial interests of their individual communities.”

Chris Hilton, an attorney with the Texas attorney general’s office, said the state would appeal. Attorney General Ken Paxton has argued that Samaniego’s order is illegal because it goes against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide order to reopen businesses.

Meanwhile, three Air Force medical teams were expected to arrive in El Paso by the weekend, according to Seth Christensen, chief of media and communications for the Texas Department of Emergency Management.

El Paso joins a list of 10 other cities, including Houston, San Antonio and multiple communities in the Rio Grande Valley region, to receive aid from the Department of Defense at the request of Texas officials, Christensen said. Hidalgo County, in the Rio Grande Valley region, reported more than 600 deaths in July — more than the Houston area, which has five times the population.

It’s the latest in an influx of outside help for El Paso, which has included the state sending private medical personnel as well as mobile morgues from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to hold bodies as the death toll has climbed.

The Air Force teams consist of 20 military medical providers each and provide support for three El Paso hospitals, Abbott said. According to Army officials, the approximately 60 medical providers will come from Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas; Eglin Air Force Base in Florida; Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi; Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, and elsewhere.

“Our ongoing partnership with the federal government is crucial to our efforts in reducing COVID-19 hospitalizations in El Paso,” Abbot said in a statement.

The operation will be led by U.S. Army North, U.S. Northern Command’s Joint Force Land Component Command.

“We remain steadfast in our commitment to assist those in need as part of the whole-of-nation response to the COVID-19 pandemic and in support of FEMA,” Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson, ARNORTH and JFLCC commander, said in a statement. “Alongside our local, state and federal partners, we will work to mitigate this virus and care for El Pasoans.”

El Paso recorded 1,300 new COVID-19 cases Friday, bringing the total active cases to 23,702. Eighteen new coronavirus deaths were also reported. The El Paso-area’s spike in coronavirus infections has formed a significant part of the upward trend in COVID-19 cases statewide, even though the metro area of more than 800,000 is a fraction of the state’s population of nearly 30 million.

But combining it with the population of twin city Ciudad Juarez, just across the border in Mexico, makes it home to 3 million people. Many people cross the border daily for work, shopping and to see family. Officials on both sides of the border have asked people to limit interactions to slow the spread of COVID-19.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, the county’s top elected official, ordered a two-week shutdown of nonessential activities late last week. The Texas Attorney General’s Office and a group of restaurant operators have asked a judge for a temporary injunction to stop the restrictions.

Statewide, health officials reported 7,221 new coronavirus cases and 136 new COVID-19 deaths Friday, bringing the number of Texas cases for the pandemic to 942,539 and its death toll to 18,589. An estimated 119,238 cases are active, with 6,070 cases requiring hospitalization, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

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