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El Paso steps up COVID-19 enforcement over Labor Day weekend

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El Paso firefighters and police issued more citations for violations of pandemic health orders over the Labor Day weekend than they had over the three previous months combined, officials said Thursday.

From Sept. 4-7, “we issued 10 citations. They were all for businesses. And we issued 50 warnings, 49 were for businesses, one was for an apartment complex,” Mayor Dee Margo said at a news conference that focused on current COVID-19 conditions in El Paso.

He didn’t provide details on the citations, and the city hasn’t updated its COVID-19 education and compliance website since Aug. 30. When asked for more information about the citations, Jorge Rodriguez, the city-county emergency management coordinator, said they were still being processed. “We’ll update the compliance report as soon as that becomes available,” he said.

The city and county have issued a series of health orders since mid-March aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. They limit public gatherings and the number of people allowed inside restaurants, mandate face coverings, and require social distancing.  

Police and firefighters issued 117 citations for health order violations from mid-March to the end of May, according to city records. No citations were issued in June or July, and four were issued in August.

Deputy City Manager Dionne Mack told El Paso Matters that the city decided in May to back off of enforcement and to emphasize education as a way of ensuring compliance with health orders.

“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.

Mack’s comments on Aug. 27 were criticized by three members of the City Council, who said the council had directed city staff three weeks earlier to increase enforcement and post citation information on the city’s website.

Rodriguez said the increased citations over Labor Day weekend didn’t mark a change in approach by El Paso officials.

“We’ve always taken a dual approach when it comes to compliance. We do have our education task force that has been working from the beginning, from the outset, to work with businesses to ensure that they’re successful in providing a safe environment for their employees as well as their clients,” he said. “And also working hand-in-hand with our compliance task force … to ensure that we have a comprehensive approach that if there are citations that are noted, that those citations are made.” 

Cover photo: Social distance markers have become ubiquitous at stores around the world in recent months. (Photo by Stephanie Chavez/Borderzine.com)

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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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