As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations push El Paso’s health care system beyond the breaking point, a political rift is developing over who has control.
At midnight, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego ordered a two-week shutdown of all non-essential services in his county. He said the decision was based on “the advice and recommendation of medical professionals, as well as hospital CEOs.”
“Since the beginning of this pandemic, El Paso County has never seen this level of high infection rates of COVID-19 throughout our community,” Samaniego tweeted. “Our hospitals are at capacity, and our medical professionals are overwhelmed. If we don’t respond, we will see unprecedented levels of death.”
The county judge appealed to Gov. Greg Abbott to work with him and “recognize that this is a short-term remedy that is needed to contain the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in our community.”
There has been no response from Abbott, but El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a Republican, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, also a Republican, say Samaniego’s shutdown violates Abbott’s order giving him sole authority to make such decisions.
“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,” stated Margo.
Paxton is threatening a lawsuit.
“El Paso County Judge Samaniego has no authority to shut down businesses in El Paso County. This is a direct violation of @GovAbbott’s executive order. My office is quickly exploring all legal actions,” Paxton stated on Twitter.
Samaniego says he consulted with the county’s attorneys and believes he is on firm legal ground.
The shutdown does not apply to the following:
- polling sites
- schools that provide meal services
- child care facilities
- grocery stores
- funeral services
- all health care offices and facilities
- government operations
- post offices
- retail-to-go services.
Non-essential services that are closed for two weeks are:
- tattoo parlors
- hair salons
- nail salons
- massage businesses
- in-person dining.
Samaniego says without this move, El Paso is in danger of running out of hospital beds, including the additional beds at the make-shift overflow facility at the El Paso Convention Center.