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El Paso City Council orders bar closures, restaurant restrictions to fight coronavirus

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The El Paso City Council ordered bars closed and placed strict limits on restaurant operations, part of ongoing responses to the coronavirus that have suspended normal life.

Health officials said they were worried about St. Patrick’s Day celebrations planned hours later, though the order later posted by health officials said the closure requirement takes effect at 1 a.m. Wednesday. Restaurants can only allow half of posted capacity at any one time, no more than six people can be at one table, and tables must be spaced six feet apart.

The action came two days after Dr. Hector Ocaranza, medical director of the El Paso Public Health Department, advised people to avoid large gatherings but said closures or restrictions on bars and restaurants weren’t necessary. On Tuesday, Ocaranza said some of the community wasn’t heeding social distancing guidance and said mandatory actions were necessary.

“We continuously sent the same message to everybody: don’t gather in large groups. We have seen that this whole message hasn’t been going through and we’re still seeing big gatherings,” he said.

City officials said Ocaranza has sweeping powers to place controls on public behaviors, without City Council approval, and Ocaranza said he planned to implement the measures regardless of council action.

The ordinance passed unanimously and is in effect for 30 days. Ocaranza’s order on bars and restaurants is for 14 days.

Public health experts say eliminating large group contact is crucial in combating coronavirus.

“Social distancing is important to delaying the onset of widespread community transmission,” said Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at Johns Hopkins University.

Rep. Alexsandra Anello had threatened to vote no because it didn’t include specifics on support for affected businesses That would have killed the ordinance because Texas law requires unanimous support for emergency items. She agreed to support the ordinance after the council agreed to consider a business stabilization fund in 30 days.

J&K Present, a company that owns the El Paso bars Later, Later and Lost & Found, had decided to close their bars shortly before the City Council vote.

“The health and wellbeing of our customers, employees, families, and our community is extremely important to us, and we encourage everyone to take these restrictions seriously and practice social distancing,” J&K’s owners, Johnny Escalante and Kiki Cervantes, said in a statement.

At the Rockin’ Cigar Bar in El Paso’s Cincinnati Entertainment District, two patrons sipped beers minutes after the City Council decision. They said they understood the need for actions to protect public health.

“I expected it,” said a woman sitting at the bar with a pitcher of green beer. She decided to stop by the bar mid-afternoon to avoid the crowds later.

“When I was out getting gas today, I went to the grocery store, I thought, well, I’m out. I wanted to be home by like 4:30. I didn’t know it was gonna be like this,” she said of the bar closure order.

One other person sat at the bar, a man who identified himself only as Mike. He was more than six feet away from the other patron, maintaining proper social distancing. On St. Patrick’s Day, he drank a pint of Guinness and a shot of Jameson whisky.

“It was expected, yeah, and it might be necessary. And as you can see, it’s already slow,” he said, pointing to a largely empty bar that in past years would already be filling with St. Patrick’s Day revelers.

El Paso has had three positive coronavirus tests and Juárez reported its first case on Tuesday.

City Council members expressed concern about the impact on businesses. About 39,000 people are employed in the hospitality industry in El Paso, representing about one in every eight jobs in the county.

Other measures included in the ordinance approved Tuesday:

  • Prices for a wide swath of necessities can’t be raised above prices on March 13.
  • Barring gatherings of more than 50 people, though the ordinance exempts the airport, bus terminals, office or residential buildings, grocery stores, hotels, hospitals and most retail places.
  • Bars utilities from disconnecting cable, internet, water, gas, waste removal and electric utility services for lack of payment while the ordinance is in effect.
  • Bars landlords from evicting a tenant for lack of payment while the ordinance is in effect.
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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. He spent most of his career at the El Paso Times, serving in a variety of leadership roles. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including Pulitzer Prize finalist, the Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership, the James Madison Award from the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, the Jack Douglas Award from Texas Associated Press Managing Editors and the Frank W. Mayborn Award for Community Leadership from the Texas Press Association. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award from the National Press Association. As a freelance journalist, 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 the border by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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