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El Paso Officials Ask Residents To Stay Home For Two Weeks As COVID-19 Hospitalizations Surge

A sanitizing station is set up at the entrance of the emergency room at the El Paso Children's Hospital on Friday. Credit: Joel Angel Juarez for The Texas Tribune

By Cassandra Pollock and Julián Aguilar, The Texas Tribune

"Please continue to exercise your right to vote," said El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, who announced a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.

As El Paso continues to grapple with a surge of coronavirus cases, county authorities on Sunday implemented a curfew and city health officials   asked residents to stay home for the next two weeks in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.

COVID-19-related hospitalizations in the area have spiked from 259 to 786 in less than three weeks — a 300% increase, according to Angela Mora, the director of the El Paso Public Health Department. And over the past 14 days, El Paso County has seen nearly 10,000 cases, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Sunday’s stay-at-home request from city officials — and the announcement of the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. county curfew — came nine days ahead of Election Day and as El Paso follows a statewide trend of record turnout during early voting. Officials, though, stressed that Sunday's announcement did not mean residents should not vote if they have not already.

"It’s important for the public to understand that voting is safe and our county elective department has taken steps to ensure the safety and health of El Paso voters," El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said during a Sunday evening virtual news conference. "Please continue to exercise your right to vote."

In addition to the presidential race, El Paso voters are deciding whether to send back to city hall Mayor Dee Margo, a former Republican state representative who, in addition to the pandemic, has overseen the city’s reaction and response to the migrant border crisis and the 2019 Walmart shooting . An alleged white supremacist has been charged in the murder of 23 people there.

Margo faces a challenge from his predecessor, Oscar Leeser, and two native El Pasoans considered representative of the more progressive faction of city politics, attorney Veronica Carbajal and former city planner Carlos Gallinar. Two other candidates are also in the race.

Samaniego said El Paso being "at a crisis stage" is what prompted the latest order. Residents are encouraged to stay home except for essential services. The curfew won't be imposed on residents traveling for work or essential business, though enforcement will be "a vital component." Any peace officer can enforce the latest order, the county judge said; residents can be fined $250 for not wearing a face covering while in public or $500 for any other violations of the order.

"Enforcement at this time is going to be very necessary," Samaniego said. "It's something that we're hesitant about because of our tremendous respect for law enforcement, tremendous respect for our community, but we find ourselves at this time to be in a situation where this has to take precedence over a lot of things that have taken place."

Asked later whether the county could go into a more restrictive shutdown, Samaniego said he and Margo spoke with Gov.  Greg Abbott's staff on Saturday about that possibility and "agreed it would be harsh on the income of our constituents." Samaniego also said he spoke Sunday afternoon with Abbott, who expressed concerns that the community and law enforcement had not responded accordingly to help avoid a surge in cases.

"I think we've done everything possible to do the right things," Samaniego said.

Abbott's office said Sunday that the governor spoke with Samaniego and discussed concerns that local officials had not enforced current limitations on reopenings.

"As soon as El Paso exceeded the 15 percent hospital capacity for 7 days the capacity limits were automatically reduced and local officials have a responsibility to enforce those limits," Abbott spokesperson John Wittman said in a statement.

Sunday's announcement also comes on the heels of  a recent decision by the El Paso ISD Board of Trustees to extend virtual learning. As of Sunday, some students are set to resume in-person learning Nov. 6.

The COVID trends in El Paso prompted officials earlier this month  to increase restrictions for restaurants and some businesses, which included scaling back nonessential businesses to 50% capacity and limiting outdoor gathering to 10 people or fewer.

Abbott's office has  in recent daysalso deployed medical personnel and equipment to the region. On Sunday, Abbott’s office announced that the state would establish an alternate care site at the El Paso Convention and Performing Arts Center this week to provide additional hospital beds and medical equipment. Later Sunday, Abbott’s office said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services planned to send medical assistance teams to the region this week.

In response to the spike in cases, area hospitals announced Saturday they were making preparations to airlift patients to other hospitals to free up bed space in their facility, local media  reported.

Margo and Abbott have also said in recent days they have asked the Department of Defense to use William Beaumont Army Medical Center to serve non-COVIDpatients at its facility. El Paso is home to the Fort Bliss Army base.

As of Sunday afternoon, the request from the city was still pending.

Editor's note: Cassandra Pollock reported from Austin and Julián Aguilar reported from El Paso.

Clarification, Oct. 25, 2020: An earlier version of this story did not make clear that a number given for the 14-day total of coronavirus cases for El Paso County — 10,827 — was inflated because it included backlogged cases. The story has been updated to say that the 14-day total is nearly 10,000.