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Coronavirus Health

El Paso allowing restaurants, bars to continue operations during coronavirus pandemic

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Restaurants and bars are an increasing focal point in efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus, with some cities and states ordering closures or other limits. But El Paso officials Sunday said it was still OK for people to go out for food and beverages, though they urged caution.

“We don’t have big restaurants where you have big gatherings. Those are the ones that we recommend that you don’t do,” Dr. Hector Ocaranza, medical director of the El Paso Public Health Department, said at a news conference Sunday. “Local restaurants, small restaurants, you’re still going to be having some distancing.”

Ocaranza announced Sunday that El Paso has a second presumptive case of coronavirus, a man in his 40s who is currently hospitalized. No other information was available on the man. El Paso’s first presumptive case was announced Friday, a man in his 40s who had recently traveled domestically. He is recovering at home.

Ocaranza on Saturday ordered schools to close for three weeks, a week longer than most El Paso school districts had previously announced. But city health officials have not placed any restrictions on gatherings at bars and restaurants.

Dr. Hector Ocaranza of the El Paso Department of Public Health spoke at a press conference about the coronavirus on Sunday, March 15, 2020. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

The governors of Illinois and Ohio on Sunday ordered bars and restaurants closed, although restaurants were allowed to continue carryout service. Cities such as Boston and Fort Lauderdale established earlier closing hours for bars.

In New Mexico, Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel on Sunday ordered restrictions on bar and restaurant operations.

Beginning 9 a.m. Monday, all restaurants, bars, breweries and other food establishments “shall operate at no greater than 50 percent of maximum occupancy and no greater than 50 percent of seating capacity. In addition, tables and booths may not seat more than six people, and all occupied tables and booths must be separated by at least six feet. Patrons may not be seated at bars, and standing patrons will not be served,” state officials said in a news release.

New Mexico health officials also ordered all non-tribal casinos and horse racing tracks to close through April 10. The biggest impact will be at the Sunland Park racetrack and casino outside El Paso, which is in the midst of its annual racing season.

The announcements came after social media was filled Friday and Saturday with pictures of people drinking in nightclubs, despite repeated warnings to use “social distancing” to avoid close contact in large groups.

“I tried earlier this week to appeal to everyone’s good judgment to stay home, to avoid bars, not to congregate in crowds. It’s unfortunate that many people didn’t take that seriously,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in ordering bars and restaurants closed. The time for persuasion and public appeals is over. The time for action is here. This is not a joke.”

State and local leaders face a difficult balance in trying to protect public health and the local economy. In El Paso County, the private-sector hospitality industry provides about 38,000 jobs, one of every eight jobs in the county.

“There’s a lot of implications when we talk about local businesses,” Ocaranza acknowledged.

He suggested that people use takeout service rather than dining in restaurants.

“We cannot stress enough that we need to take care of those that are most vulnerable. I know my mother, my father, they would love to go out and eat. Let’s keep them home. Bring something from those places and have a nice meal at home,” Ocaranza said.

Robert Ardovino, co-owner of Ardovino’s Desert Crossing in Sunland Park, said restaurateurs are taking steps to protect the public. 

“We’re taking all precautions and constantly sanitizing, from the entrance to the kitchens.  Fortunately we have private and outdoor availability, so families can maintain their social distancing,” he said.

Ardovino agreed with the suggestion to use takeout service at restaurants.

“With the beautiful weather, pick up food and take it on a picnic to see the poppies,” he said.

Ardovino also suggested buying gift certificates from restaurants now that can be redeemed later when a sense of normalcy returns.

At Sunday’s news conference, Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said the coronavirus pandemic will cause economic disruption. 

“I just had a conversation this morning, for example, with an employer who is going to have to lay people off as a result of the coronavirus,” Escobar said.

The House passed a bill this weekend to extend sick leave and other benefits to people impacted by the outbreak. It’s not clear if the Senate will pass the bill.

The legislation adds $1 billion for unemployment insurance and urges states to waive requirements, such as a one-week wait before collecting unemployment compensation, for people laid off because of the pandemic.

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Robert Moore

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, Pulitzer Prize finalist and the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award. Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on border issues by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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