As Texas reopens, El Paso mayor says city not yet ‘out of the woods’ with COVID-19
A dozen shoppers waited Friday for El Paso’s largest mall to unlock its doors after it went dark for 42 days to prevent the spread of the deadly COVID-19.
Texas has re-opened for business, partially.
Despite the worries and warnings of local leaders, El Paso has, too.
Linda Phillips, 78, and her husband stood at a main entrance to Cielo Vista Malljust before 11 a.m. After weeks of staying close to home, she said they were planning to shop for shorts and pants.
They weren’t worried about catching the virus, she said.
“I guess I think it has been blown out of proportion,” Phillips said. “If the people do what they’re supposed to do with (wearing) the mask and the spacing and hand washing, I’m good.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s loosening of restrictions on businesses went into effect Friday, allowing retail stores, shopping malls, movie theaters and restaurants to reopen at 25% capacity in counties with more than five COVID-19 cases.
In response to the growing threat of COVID-19, we are offering all coronavirus-related content free as a public service. Please consider subscribing today to support important journalism like this.
The tentative return to economic activity came during a week in which El Paso County saw a jump in coronavirus-related hospitalizations and deaths. El Paso health officials reported three deaths Thursday, after reporting four deaths Wednesday — a one-day record for the county.
Twenty-one people have died from COVID-19 in El Paso since the county reported its first case seven weeks ago. Nine of those 22 deaths came this week. As of Thursday evening, the county had reported 924 positive cases of the novel coronavirus.
Hospitalizations also rose this week, from 35 patients hospitalized on Monday, to 53 as of Thursday, the latest available data as of press time. Of Thursday’s patients, 31 were in the intensive care unit.
Countywide, hospitals have just 75 ICU beds.
Mayor: El Pasoans need to ‘control our own destiny’
Abbott’s order supersedes the local orders mandating businesses remain closed, and Mayor Dee Margo said it will be up to El Pasoans “to control our own destiny to a great extent.”
The city and county put an 11th-hour order late Thursday continuing the prohibition on gatherings of people in private or public settings and mandating that people wear face coverings in public.
It’s a “mandate” that can’t be legally enforced with a citation or fine, but one officials hope will inspire those “who are civic-minded, who care about the community and understand what needs to happen,” said El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego.
“I think we’re doing the right thing,” Samaniego said of the mandate that is meant to dull the stimulating effects of the governor’s order. “The mayor and I are trying to be the conscience of the community, and I think the majority of people are saying they’re not ready to do this.”
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, called Abbott’s executive order “reckless” in a statement Friday and said “his decision to tie the hands of local officials who are best positioned to protect their communities is particularly irresponsible.”
South El Paso Street comes back to life
By midday Friday, life seemed to be coming back to South El Paso Street.
Music blasted from speakers at the open retail stores, as people strolled busy sidewalks carrying shopping bags and pulling carts. A line snaked outside Sabroso Shop, known for hawking burritos 24 hours a day; pedestrians sat on benches reading the newspaper.
Abigail Ramirez, 21, crosses regularly to Juárez to take groceries bought in El Paso to her great-grandmother on the other side of the border.
“It looks so much better now. It looks happier,” Ramirez said. “Last week it looked like a desert and was completely empty.”
Many of the garage doors though were still pulled tight on the street’s shops. Of the quarter or so open, some owners had put out signs saying they weren’t allowing clients inside without a face covering.
Indeock Kim, owner of J.K. Tennis, said he turned away clients during the day for not wearing face coverings. An employee held a bottle of hand sanitizer to offer to customers.
“It’s just been a few customers walking in, but I didn’t expect much at all,” Kim said.
Health care professionals say we opened too soon
As shoppers ventured out Friday afternoon, more than two dozen National Nurses United union members protested Friday in front of some of El Paso’s major hospital systems — Las Palmas and Del Sol Medical Centers and The Hospitals of Providence Memorial campus — to voice concerns about personal protective equipment shortages.
That concern is heightened now that businesses are reopening, which could increase the spread of coronavirus in the region.
“I think we still need a few more weeks” before Texas businesses can reopen,” Las Palmas Medical Center registered nurse Juan Anchondo said. “I am afraid it is going to give an uptick in the number of cases.”
El Pasoans shouldn’t let down their guard, Anchondo said: “Wear your required masks, keep social distancing and if you are older than 60 please don’t go out … It is better to stay home until everything gets better.”
Dr. Alison Days, a local pediatrician and president of the El Paso County Medical Society, said Friday’s reopening was too soon in a Thursday phone call with The El Paso Times.
While supportive of a phased reopening of businesses, she would have preferred an approach that allowed cities and counties to determine when they are ready to reopen, similar to how the governor deferred to cities to enact stay-at-home orders instead of issuing a statewide one.
“I think we should have reopened exactly the way we locked down, in that order,” Days said. “Not everybody sort of reopening at the same time, across the state.”
El Paso officials willing to seek more restrictions from governor
As El Paso reopens, Margo and Samaniego said they are closely monitoring the number of COVID-19 patients in critical condition. If that number continues to rise, Margo said they would ask the governor to allow them to re-impose local restrictions on businesses to avoid a situation in which hospitals are stretched to capacity.
On Thursday, 31 of the county’s 75 ICU beds were taken by COVID-19 patients.
“If we need to take action, we’ll take action,” Margo told the El Paso Times on Thursday. “Right now, we’re in observation mode.”
Officials will have a better picture within the next two to three weeks of whether more restrictions are needed to curb the spread of the virus, the mayor said.
While he has yet to speak to Abbott about the possibility of making a countywide exception to the statewide order, Margo said he’s discussed it with members of the El Paso state legislative delegation.
“I’m not going to raise concerns until I really feel the necessity to do so,” Margo said.
State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said the governor’s approach is risky.
“While we are all concerned about people not being back at work, people struggling to make ends meet, the economy continuing to suffer, the question is: Do we prematurely open our economy at the tremendous risk to people’s lives? That’s the question,” Rodríguez said.
“I know the governor keeps on talking and others talk about striking a balance, and that’s why he wants to do this in phases, but it’s a hell of a risk,” he said.
Outside El Paso, reopening raises eyebrows
Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima took to Twitter on Thursday to ask his constituents “to please refrain from going to El Paso for the next couple of weeks.”
“All I’m going to suggest is to think about your health and the health of your family and to please stay home, and if necessary, shop local,” Miyagishima said in a video posted to his Twitter account.
Doña Ana County had 147 COVID-19 cases Friday. It’s reported one death.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham allowed nonessential retailers to open Friday via curbside service and delivery, but malls, movie theaters and dine-in restaurant service remain closed.
South of the border, Juárez Mayor Armando Cabada said the city is committed to its strategy.
“We’re sticking to the same ‘stay at home’ policy as before,” Cabada told the El Paso Times on Friday. “We’re still 10 to 15 days off our peak of coronavirus cases.”
Chihuahua state health department director Dr. Arturo Valenzuela also warned Juárez residents against going to El Paso to shop and said the Mexican state wouldn’t be following suit on Texas’ opening.
“We should stay on this side and avoid crossing,” Valenzuela said in a Wednesday news conference. “We need to keep it clear that we came into this pandemic a month later. So, we don’t plan to adopt the same behavior.”
“If you, now that they are opening El Paso, go over there, you are going to throw fuel on the fire that we have here in Juárez,” he said.
Juárez reported a total 357 cases Friday, and has seen 75 people die from coronavirus, though many believe the city’s death toll is far higher.
“And forget about flattening the curve,” Valenzuela said. “We’re going to spike like a rocket.”
Staff writers Eleanor Dearman, Aaron Martinez, Veronica Martinez Jacobo and Aaron Montes contributed to this report.