Peter Svarzbein

Mayor Dee Margo accused city Rep. Peter Svarzbein — who lost family in the Holocaust — of proposing “Gestapo-like tactics” when he advocated for closing off inside dining at restaurants for two weeks to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Mayor Dee Margo

Margo’s statement came during a heated City Council debate Tuesday night. Svarzbein’s proposal, which ultimately failed, mirrored steps that Margo supported in March, during the early days of the pandemic. El Paso now has the worst COVID-19 outbreak among major U.S. cities, with hospitals beyond capacity.

“To be completely honest, it was incredibly hurtful to hear language that compared me to the people who exterminated my family. It was below the belt. It was anti-Semitic. And this kind of language that we’re hearing for months now of comparing public health responses to keep people safe, to save lives, with the language of Nazis and Gestapo tactics is incredibly offensive,” said Svarzbein, who is in his final term representing the West Side on City Council.

Margo, who is seeking re-election against five opponents in Tuesday’s election, apologized on Twitter.

Margo’s tweet was more apologetic than the email he sent Svarzbein earlier in the day.

“Peter I apologize for the use of the term ‘Gestapo’ in the course of discussion last night. Inappropriate semantic use. Should have found other words to describe that I will not allow dictatorial legislative tactics to shut down EP,” the mayor said.

Margo has not responded to a question on why he now considers temporarily stopping in-room dining to be “dictatorial” when he supported such steps earlier this year.

Svarzbein’s grandmother , Cecilia Camp, survived the Holocaust but lost most of her family to the Nazis’ extermination efforts. She was rescued from a concentration camp by a French resistance fighter she later married. Camp and her daughter, Sylvia — Peter’s mother — immigrated to the United States after the war.

Celia Camp, who survived the Holocaust, holds her young grandson Peter Svarzbein. (Photo courtesy of Peter Svarzbein)

Svarzbein said Margo reached out to him by email on Wednesday.

“He sent a very short statement to me that I think reiterated more his political position than any sort of remorse or understanding about how offensive his comments were,” he said.

Although the City Council is elected in nonpartisan races, Margo is a longtime Republican and Svarzbein a Democrat. 

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has said local governments can’t enact more stringent COVID-19 enforcement efforts than his own orders. Svarzbein and other council members wanted to challenge that and call for a two-week restriction on in-person dining that would allow for takeout and delivery service.

El Paso took that step from mid-March through early May, before Abbott’s edict. Restaurants currently are allowed to have in-person dining so long as the number of people doesn’t exceed 50 percent of capacity. 

“I am not calling in any way, shape or form to shut down or close businesses. What I am advocating for is for us to have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the governor’s orders and to address whatever is going on the local level with a common sense approach towards keeping people safe,” Svarzbein said. “What I am asking for is for us to have restaurants open only for takeout and delivery for the next two weeks.”

Svarzbein said Margo is repeating language used across the country to describe public health measures as an abuse of government power.

“People need to realize, regardless of what they feel on this public health emergency, that this kind of language, talking about comparing people to Nazis, about talking about Gestapo tactics, has no place in what is a conversation about public health and keeping people safe and saving lives,” he said.

“The fact is the Gestapo was trying to take millions of lives and what myself and other council members are doing … is to try to save lives and to protect this community,” Svarzbein said.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission said Wednesday that it was stepping up inspections of bars and restaurants in El Paso because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“TABC is deploying additional agents to the El Paso region for the next several days. The agents will be assisting with enforcement of the governor’s executive orders related to reducing the spread of COVID-19,” spokesman Chris Porter said. “This includes issues such as social distancing and capacity limit requirements, as well as enforcement of rules requiring bars to remain closed during the pandemic.”

Cover photo: City Rep. Peter Svarzbein represents District 1, covering much of the West Side, on El Paso’s City Council.

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

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