Masks, umbrellas and fluids were necessary for El Pasoans to cope this year with record August heat and the COVID-19 pandemic. (Claudia Tristán/El Paso Matters)

On May 29, the managers of two Central El Paso bars were each given a pair of citations for violating El Paso’s pandemic health orders requiring social distancing and limiting bar capacity. That brought the city’s total citations since mid-March to 117. El Paso County had 2,700 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

In the three months since — as the number of COVID-19 cases soared to nearly 20,000 — only two citations have been issued, according to city data posted this week. El Paso has largely stopped enforcing its pandemic health orders, relying instead on education efforts, officials said.

Deputy City Manager Dionne Mack said that “while some may wish to make enforcement and the number of COVID cases a black and white issue, it is not; and connecting the two would be an incomplete and insincere depiction.”

One of the nation’s leading public health experts said enforcement of public health orders is necessary to ensure compliance and slow pandemic spread.

“People can take certain actions to reduce the spread of COVID, including wearing masks when around others and avoiding crowded, indoor locations. Public health orders are one tool to encourage these actions and reduce the spread,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “Appropriate orders that are routinely disregarded are not effective, which is why at least some reasonable level of enforcement is important for their adoption.”

Mack said Gov. Greg Abbott’s April 27 order prohibited fines for failing to wear face coverings, which reduced the number of citations issued by the city. However, Abbott on July 2 issued a mandatory face-covering order for most counties, including El Paso, which set fines of up to $250 for violations. El Paso has not issued any citations for violating that order, according to the city’s data.

The education approach

El Paso police and firefighters issued 91 citations between March 18 and April 30, according to city records, an average of more than two a day. But then the pace of citations slowed. 

In May, police and firefighters issued 25 citations, fewer than one per day. Only four of those citations — the May 29 actions against the two bar managers — were issued after May 16. Retail stores, bars and other non-essential businesses were allowed to reopen on May 29 after two months of forced closures.

The vast majority of citations issued — 87 — were for violating orders limiting the size of public gatherings. Most of those were issued at residential addresses.

The city decided in May to focus on education efforts rather than enforcement, Mack said in a prepared statement.

“Instead of issuing citations, the city decided to educate. The city understands the need to be very aggressive in protecting the health and wellness of our community; but as the state began to reopen and as the enforcement teams went out into the community we noted a pattern on the need for businesses to be educated,” she said.

No citations were issued in all of June and July as the virus spread rapidly throughout El Paso, according to city records.

The Fire Department issued two citations for violation of workplace disinfection orders on Aug. 7 — both to Chinese restaurants — the only pandemic citations of any sort issued since late May, according to city records.

Mack said the education efforts have been effective.

“For example, the Education Task Force visited 250 gyms in July. They found a few not in compliance. Staff worked to provide a corrective action plan, revisited the gyms and noted 100 percent compliance. This was repeated with grocery stores, eateries, etc.,” she said.

Other Texas cities have been more aggressive in enforcement efforts. After issuing no citations for health order violations between May 5 and June 26, San Antonio has issued 70 citations since June 27, most for not wearing face coverings, according to data the city posted on its website.

City Council reaction

El Paso Matters asked the mayor and City Council members whether they were aware the city had largely stopped enforcement of pandemic health orders, and whether they thought an approach that relied almost exclusively on education protected public health.

“I was unaware of the change from an enforcement to education policy and I am extremely upset by that move. Considering that on Aug. 4, the council directed the city manager and staff to become more transparent and strict on enforcement, this move is a clear example of  how council action is being ignored and undermined by administrative staff,” city Rep. Alexsandra Annello said. “I would much prefer that the City of El Paso enforce health regulations so that we can reduce the number of virus cases and save lives.”

Annello said educating businesses and the public about health orders before issuing citations is important. “There are some locations, however, that are in clear violation of safety protocols and that must end immediately. It is upsetting to see that no matter how many times constituents have reached out about these locations or how may times I have reached out to staff working on public safety, there have been no warnings or citations given. As a result, I do not think this education only approach has worked towards keeping El Pasoans safe and healthy. Each day, new virus cases and deaths are reported and that is due to a failure of some of our leaders.”

City Rep. Cassandra Hernandez also said she hadn’t been told the city had halted enforcement efforts, but “we suspected that was the case due to the high volume of complaints we received that citations were not being issued.”

Hernandez also said education efforts are important, in conjunction with enforcement.

“On Aug. 4 we directed the city manager to scale efforts of enforcement, which is a clear policy decision council approved. My expectation is that enforcement efforts are practiced along with educational efforts,” she said.

City Rep. Peter Svarzbein said he has “consistently voiced my concerns inside and outside City Council meetings about the need to support our regulations through effective enforcement during this ongoing pandemic.”

Other council members have not responded to requests for comment.    

The pandemic in El Paso

El Paso’s public health authority, Dr. Hector Ocaranza, has repeatedly told El Pasoans to comply with public health orders.

“The consistent jump in positive cases lately is alarming, and calls for everybody to once again devote themselves to strictly practice the recommended safety precautions to slow the spread in our community,” Ocaranza said in a July 2 press release. “While the Fourth of July is fast approaching we want to remind the community that social gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited. ”

Large gatherings took place across the county over the Fourth of July weekend, though no citations were issued, despite the governor’s directive. 

When Ocaranza issued his July 2 warning against large gatherings, El Paso had reported 6,600 COVID-19 cases in just under four months. Over the next four weeks, the number of cases would more than double, blowing past 14,000.

El Paso’s COVID-19 infection rate is much higher than most counties its size in the country, according to USA Facts, the federal government’s data site.

The 95 U.S. counties with populations between 500,000 and 1 million have had, on average, just over 1,800 COVID-19 infections per 100,000 residents as of Wednesday, according to USA Facts. El Paso’s rate is 2,350 infections per 100,000 residents, about 30 percent higher than the peer average.

Only 22 of the 95 peer counties had higher COVID-19 infection rates than El Paso, and only four of those were west of the Mississippi River.

Cover photo: A woman wears a mask while shopping in Downtown El Paso. The city hasn’t issued any citations for violating the state face-covering order that took effect July 2, and has largely stopped enforcing its public health ordinance in favor of education efforts. (Claudia Tristán/El Paso Matters)

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