The El Paso County Judge has ordered a two-week shutdown of non-essential services due to new Covid-19 cases soaring in the Texas community.
"Since the inception of this pandemic, El Paso County has never seen this level of infections through our community," Judge Ricardo Samaniego, who acts as the county's chief administrator, said during a virtual news conference Thursday.
Samaniego made the decision based on the advice of medical professionals and hospital administrators, he said. As of Thursday evening, according to Samaniego, the hospitalization rate was 44%, a 365.2% increase from the beginning of the month.
The order went into effect at midnight on Thursday night.
"Our hospitals, our capacity, our medical professionals are overwhelmed, and if we don't respond, we will see unprecedented levels of death."
Election activities are considered essential services, Samaniego said, and will not be affected. He assured residents that steps have been taken to assure polling places are safe.
Other essential services, like grocery stores, pharmacies and schools that provide meal service can remain open. But businesses like tattoo parlors, hair and nail salons and gyms must close for two weeks. Restaurants will be limited to delivery or curbside service.
As of Friday morning, El Paso County, which sits on the southern border with Mexico, had reported 1,347 new positive Covid-19 tests and 10 new deaths, bringing the total death toll to 595, according to the City/County of El Paso Covid-19 website. There were more than 15,000 active cases in the community.
The shutdown will be aimed at relieving the "strain on our medical resources."
The Judge said he recognized the financial impact the shutdown could have on El Paso residents, and said he was committed to finding ways to assist in the recovery.
AG 'exploring all legal actions'
El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said he was seeking clarification on the order from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's office.
"The Judge did not consult me and refuses to return my call, so I am seeking clarification from the Attorney General on the new County order, which does not supersede the Governor's orders," said Mayor Dee Margo in a statement released Thursday night.
"What I can speak to is the hurt our community is going through," the mayor added. "We must strike a balance of keeping our neighbors safe while not destroying people's abilities to feed their families."
But Paxton said the county judge "has no authority to shut down business in El Paso County," calling it a "direct violation" of an order from Gov. Greg Abbott.
"My office is quickly exploring all legal actions," Paxton said on Twitter.
Samaniego said he had spoken with Abbott, but the discussion was "not fruitful."
"I'm also very cognizant and respectful of the governor's orders," Samaniego said. "The hard truth is that the people who are dying are El Pasoans; they are not in Austin."
Samaniego previously issued a nightly curfew for two weeks beginning Sunday night from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., citing infection rates and hospitalizations. He said then the curfew was instituted instead of a stay-at-home order because officials wanted to minimize the economic impact on businesses and families.
At that time, Mayor Margo said an analysis of new cases between October 6 and October 20 in the community showed that 37% of infections were from visits to big-box stores, 22.5% came from restaurants and 19% were due to travel to Mexico. Parties, gyms and large gatherings also contributed to new cases, to lesser degrees.