El Paso Mayor Dee Margo and County Judge Ricardo Samaniego announced on Tuesday that nonessential businesses will be closed and residents ordered to shelter in place to slow the spread of coronavirus. (El Paso Matters photo)

Beginning Wednesday, El Pasoans will be under orders to stay home and nonessential businesses must close their doors, the latest and most extreme measure yet taken to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The new order — which is called “Stay Home, Work Safe” — will further disrupt El Paso’s economy, where new unemployment claims have been running more than seven times higher than in the weeks before the crisis hit.

Mayor Dee Margo announced the order at a news conference Tuesday morning along with County Judge Ricardo Samaniego. It goes into effect at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday and is in effect until further notice.

“It is a necessary step we need to take to protect our community,” said Dr. Hector Ocaranza, medical director for the El Paso Department of Public Health.

The Texas Hospital Association on Monday urged communities to adopt shelter in place “to minimize the spread and protect our health care workers.” Margo said El Paso’s hospitals and medical leaders supported the shelter in place order.

“We realize that this is a significant economic, financial impact on all of El Paso, and we’re very mindful of that. We were mindful of that before we made this decision,” Margo said. “The presumption is, our hope is, that by doing this, we have shortened a lot of the timeline that is going to be required to deal with this virus so that we can try to get back to normal as soon as possible.”

Samaniego said reports of ongoing house parties with large groups of people were disturbing.

“We all must realize that our actions and inactions could have a lasting effect on the entire the community. This order will help ensure positive outcomes for the health of El Paso,” he said.

The order allows people to do grocery shopping, pickup of take-out food from restaurants, seek health care, check on family members or go to jobs at businesses listed as essential. But most retail shops and other businesses considered nonessential will have to close indefinitely.

The order lists a range of businesses and activities listed as essential. Margo said examples of essential businesses include emergency personnel, health care providers, financial institutions, postal service, child care, home-based care and construction work.

Violating the order could bring a $1,000 fine, but Margo said officials are counting on voluntary compliance with the order.

“Remember, the purpose of this is not to be onerous or restrictive, the purpose is for public health, to prevent the spread of a virus that is hitting the entire world,” he said.

“This is not martial law; this is not Checkpoint Charlie,” the mayor said.

People can still go outside their homes, but groups must be smaller than 10.

Margo said people concerned about others not complying with the order can call 311, the police non-emergency line.

States and local communities have implemented increasingly stringent restrictions on normal life over the past two weeks in an effort to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic. Health officials are trying to prevent sharp increases in cases that could overwhelm hospitals and force rationing of care.

Seventeen states, including New Mexico, have issued orders requiring people to stay home and closing nonessential businesses. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has declined to issue such orders, instead leaving the decisions to local communities.

Dr. Hector Ocaranza (City of El Paso photo)

Most large Texas urban areas — including Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio — are under stay at home orders issued by local officials. 

As of Monday, El Paso had reported seven positive tests for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus sweeping the globe. Three people diagnosed elsewhere are residents of El Paso and are being treated here, officials said.

Fort Bliss had four cases, Doña Ana County 10 and Ciudad Juárez four.

“We expect that we’re going to continue to see a lot of positive cases for the next two to four weeks, where we’re going to start seeing some of the peak on the epidemiological curve,” Ocaranza said.

Earlier orders in El Paso had closed bars and limited restaurants to take-out food only. Retail operations were allowed to continue though some retailers, such as Cielo Vista Mall, closed on their own.

About 59 percent of El Paso’s gross domestic product is tied to private service-providing industries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, a sector that is now largely idled. Officials at Workforce Solutions Borderplex are expecting a rush of unemployment claims in coming weeks

El Pasoans have filed 1,311 new unemployment claims between March 13, which Workforce Solutions Borderplex marks as the start of the crisis, and Monday night, CEO Leila Melendez said.  That’s an average of 187 new claims per day, up from 20 to 28 a day on average before coronavirus was detected in El Paso.

Margo said most of the relief for affected business and workers will come from the federal government, but he said the city government will explore what it can do.

” The city’s going to look at what we can do to assist. We haven’t determined yet … what our opportunities are or what’s available to us,” he said.

Also Monday, the Department of Public Health established a new hotline number for questions about COVID-19. The number is 915-21-COVID (915-212-6843.)

The new hotline number was set up to allow the 2-1-1 Texas call center, which previously had fielded COVID-19 calls, to focus on referrals for services of those impacted by business closures and unemployment, officials said.

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.