Cases of COVID-19 in El Paso continued to soar on Wednesday as city officials reported more than total 21,900 active cases and eight additional deaths.
El Paso in recent weeks has struggled to stem the tide of the novel coronavirus. Hospitals are near or at capacity, and El Paso County has set up four temporary morgues.
The rising case count came as a state district judge heard arguments Wednesday over a shutdown order issued last month by El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego. The county judge mandated a countywide, two-week closing of all nonessential businesses to help contain the outbreak.
A group of restaurant owners is challenging the judge’s order and claims it’s illegal because it goes beyond the limits set forth in Gov. Greg Abbott’s own statewide executive order. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of the businesses and is seeking an immediate halt to Samaniego’s order.
The arguments during a virtual hearing before Judge William Moody largely focused on local control versus Abbott’s executive power as governor. Assistant Attorney General Todd Dickerson called Samaniego’s actions an “unprecedented abuse of local emergency power” that violated the Texas Disaster Act and is inconsistent with Abbott’s mandate, which outlines what limits can be placed on private businesses.
“Gov. Abbott lawfully suspended the only statutes that would have given Judge Samaniego the authority to execute [the local order] in the first place,” he said.
Attorney Jed Untereker, the chief of the El Paso County Attorney office’s civil litigation unit, pleaded with Moody to realize the grave situation the county is in and agree that Samaniego was within his right under state law.
“Our community is in a public health crisis, people are dying, infection rates are through the roof and hospitals are at capacity,” he said. “The Texas Disaster Act of 1975 expressly gives power to a county judge to take action in an emergency or disaster situation just like this.”
Moody said he would render a decision on whether to temporarily halt the county order by Thursday or Friday.
Other areas of the state, including parts of the Panhandle, have likewise seen a surge in new cases. Lubbock, another growing hot spot, on Tuesday reported 459 new cases of COVID-19. In Amarillo, officials on Tuesday reported 518 new cases.
Statewide, new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all trending upward. The seven-day average of new cases is up more than 220 compared with a week ago, and there are 424 more patients in Texas hospitals than last week.
Health officials urged residents to follow precautions, such as washing hands, wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings.