El Paso businesses caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between county judge, mayor over shutdown order

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Downtown El Paso near the international bridge on the first day of the county judge's shelter-in-place order on Friday. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

EL PASO — Eddie Camargo didn't open his downtown El Paso restaurant Friday afternoon as a protest against the county judge's order that nonessential businesses close to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Instead, Camargo said he was doing what he needed to do to take care of his family as he waited tables at Rockstar Burger Bar, a downtown eatery just blocks from city hall.

Businesses like Camargo’s were caught in a tug-of-war Friday between Mayor Dee Margo and County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, who were on opposite sides of a dispute over what authority local officials have to issue stay-at-home orders amid the pandemic.

Samaniego issued the order Thursday as the county continued seeing record-breaking COVID-19 cases. The county recorded more than 5,000 new cases since Monday, non-COVID patients are being airlifted to hospitals out of town to free up bed space and the downtown convention center has been transformed into a makeshift field hospital.

Margo said the county judge's order went against Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide mandate that has allowed nonessential businesses to reopen at 75 percent capacity. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sided with Margo after the mayor requested a legal opinion on the order; on Friday Paxton joined a group of restaurants suing the county over the restrictions.

“El Paso County Judge Samaniego has no authority to shut down businesses in El Paso County. This is a direct violation of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order,” Paxton said in a statement. “Recommendations must not be confused with requirements, especially those that unlawfully burden private citizens and businesses.”

Late Friday, however, it was clear the stalemate wasn’t ending soon after the county judge doubled down on his order.

“That Order is valid, legal and enforceable. I call on the public to follow the Order,” Samaniego said in a statement. “I call on law enforcement to enforce the Order. I call on the Mayor and the City Council to join me in ensuring that this Order is followed.”

Samaniego said he would release an opinion proving he was on legal ground. But in a Friday news conference, Margo said the businesses must stay open to help El Pasoans retain their livelihoods.

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo during a press conference on day one of the shelter-in-place order that was set by County Judge Ricardo A. Samaniego, Oct. 30, 2020, in El Paso. The El Paso mayor and Gov. Abbott are fighting the order in court.
El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, in a press conference on Friday, opposed the shelter-in-place order issued by County Judge Ricardo Samaniego. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

“I am the mayor of El Paso, all of El Paso. And I am the mayor of all who are ill with this deadly virus,” he said. “But I am also the mayor of the 32,000 unemployed El Pasoans and I am the mayor of the 148,000 El Pasoans needing to feed themselves through our food banks.”

The back-and-forth has some businesses wondering what they are allowed to do, said Cindy Ramos-Davidson, CEO of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“We’ve had 119 calls in the last 24 hours about what can business do and what does the directive mean,” she said. " 'What’s the capacity? How am I going to pay my rent?’ We have it all. it’s been an emotional drain on us.”

The issue became a political football in less than 24 hours with Democrats Cesar Blanco, a state representative vying for the state Senate, and U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar backing the judge. Meanwhile, Margo was joined at his press conference by high-ranking police department officials who said their priority was public safety and enforcing the current restrictions set forth by the governor — the department had previously sided with Margo and said they would not enforce Samaniego’s order.

As the situation plays out, El Pasoans like Camargo say they hope local leaders can unite and keep the citizens' best interest in mind.

"It’s important they all get along so El Paso is strong again," said Camargo, referring to the slogan the community embraced after the 2019 Walmart shooting that left 23 people dead.

As she took a break from soaking up the late afternoon sun in downtown’s San Jacinto Plaza, El Pasoan Lexi Martinez agreed.

“It’s just so crazy between the county and city, how it’s an argument,” she said. “People are dying. Something needs to be done, some sort of defense.”