Is El Paso ready to reopen? Not all Texas officials agree.


Shuttered store fronts in downtown El Paso during the the coronavirus pandemic. Emily Kinskey for The Texas Tribune

EL When El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego visited COVID-19 testing sites around the county this week, he came away encouraged at the progress officials have made to ramp up testing for the new coronavirus amid a surge in new cases this month.

But a week after Gov. Greg Abbott gave El Paso County and the Amarillo area — two of the state's biggest recent COVID-19 hot spots — a temporary reprieve from implementing Texas' next phase of reopening, Samaniego said some of the chatter he heard as he traveled around was troubling.

“We had eight deaths reported [Wednesday] and people are getting all excited about going to midnight opening of bars [on Friday]. That sort of tells you the whole story right there,” Samaniego said.

On Wednesday, Abbott traveled to Amarillo to declare that the area had "turned a corner" after state and federal response teams were dispatched to respond to an outbreak centered on local meatpacking plants. On Friday, both El Paso and the Amarillo area are required to implement the newest phase of reopening that took effect in the rest of the state last week.

But in El Paso County, Samaniego said he hasn’t seen enough improvement over the last week to convince him the county is ready for the expanded opening, which will allow bars to operate at 25% capacity and allows water parks, motor sport venues and shopping mall food courts to reopen at limited capacity.

On May 1, when some state restrictions were lifted, El Paso County had 961 positive coronavirus cases. By May 14, cases had risen 67%, to 1,607. Numbers released Friday showed the number of cases had reached 2,623 — just a couple dozen behind Bexar County, which has more than twice the population of El Paso.

“If that’s the case, then why wouldn’t we slow down the order?” Samaniego said.

Abbott's office said Thursday that testing in El Paso has increased by 40 percent since the state deployed National Guard members to ramp up the effort here and the testing indicates a recent decrease in the city's positivity rate.

"Even with this significant ramp up in testing, the number of people testing positive and the positivity rate have declined," spokesman John Wittman said in a written statement. "In fact, over the past five days the daily average of new positive tests was 61. That is down from an average of 99 positive tests per day over the previous five days. Hospitalizations remain steady and hospital capacity remains available."

Samaniego and El Paso Mayor Dee Margo earlier this month had asked Abbott to exclude the area from parts of his executive order that allows certain businesses to operate at a greater capacity. Samaniego and other local leaders sent Abbott a letter May 8 asking that the exemption continue until the county saw a two-week downward trend of positive cases — the benchmark recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Abbott granted the county a one-week delay, and sent several state response teams comprised of National Guard members to increase testing in El Paso. He also ordered a state epidemiology team to work with the county health director to identify and address hot spots in the area.

Margo said the situation in El Paso is more manageable now and he's encouraged that the county's positivity rate has dropped to 8 percent. That’s below the 10 percent threshold that would indicate a need for more restrictive measures to avoid becoming a hot spot, he said. That threshold was set by Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response director, Margo's office said.

When Abbott excluded El Paso last week, he said it was based on low hospital bed availability in the area, which he said was “too close for comfort.” But Margo said Thursday that's no longer an issue — at least for now.

“The increase in positive cases is due to the increase in testing throughout the community,” Margo said in an email. “The phased opening is based on hospital capacity, ICU beds, and ventilators. At this time, we have the capacity to meet the demand.”

The mayor added that he’ll remain in contact with the Abbott and Samaniego “to ensure El Paso has the resources necessary, not only for testing capacity but for the hospital capacity as well.”

"The bottom line is that the surge response teams are doing an effective job of responding to hot spots and mitigating further spread of COVID-19," Wittman said. "The people of El Paso and the workers on the front lines should be incredibly proud of these results.“

Dr. Hector Ocaranza, El Paso's City/County Local Health Authority, urged caution as El Paso expands business operations.

“We urge the public, especially now as more businesses open up, that while we encourage everyone to support our local economy, be smart about it," Ocaranza said.