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Local governments will be required to hold in-person meetings despite rise in COVID-19 cases

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Amid an increase in COVID-19, cases local government bodies such as City Council and County Commissioners Court will be required to hold meetings in person following Gov. Greg Abbott’s reversal of suspended rules for the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Meetings held by the city and county have been held virtually since last March, when certain provisions of the Texas Open Meetings Act were suspended in order to help slow the spread of the pandemic by avoiding congregate settings.

But at the end of August, the suspension of those rules will no longer apply.

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“On June 30, 2021, Governor Abbott’s office approved a request by the Office of the Attorney General to lift the suspensions of certain provisions of the Open Meetings Act. The suspensions will lift at 12:01 a.m. on September 1, 2021,” according to the attorney general’s office.

COVID-19 cases have been on the rise in El Paso, mostly among people who are unvaccinated.

Abbott reversed most COVID-19 restrictions in March, but local governments have had the option to hold in-person meetings since then. Beginning next month, they will be required to do sol

Other government agencies such as school districts started holding in-person meetings in July, including the El Paso, Socorro and Canutillo school districts. The Ysleta Independent School District will return to in-person meetings Aug. 25.

City officials said meetings held in-person will be a hybrid.

“Employees do not have to be in council chambers to present and the public will still be able to participate virtually as well as in person. This will allow us to keep the attendance low, thus reducing occupancy,” said El Paso Fire Department Chief Mario D’Agostino in an email response to El Paso Matters.

D’Agostino said because of restrictions imposed by Abbott, the city will not be asking people to show their vaccination cards nor enforcing face masks requirements, but will strongly recommend individuals wear a mask when indoors.

Mayor Oscar Leeser said he hopes people who choose to attend meetings in person will practice safety measures such as social distancing, wearing face coverings and frequent hand washing.

“It’s important that we go back to in-person meetings,” Leeser said.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said the Commissioners Court is ready to hold meetings in person.

“I’ve been at the (County) Courthouse for six or seven months now wearing a mask, getting vaccinated, my staff wearing a mask and getting vaccinated, and it works,” Samaniego said.

The El Paso County Commissioners Court will have to comply with the Texas Open Meetings Act come Sept. 1, but will be able to enforce safety measures based on a Texas Supreme Court emergency order issued May 26. The order allows the chief justice of the court of appeals and local administrative district judges to adopt minimum standard health protocols in courthouses in order to resume in-person court proceedings.

The emergency order was in response to a May 17 executive order Abbott imposed that barred governmental entities, including a county, city, school district, public health authority and governmental official, from requiring any person to wear a face covering or to mandate that another person wear a face covering. The courts can issue such requirements because they are an independent branch of government.

Samaniego also issued a county order on May 21 that called on El Pasoans “to save lives and avoid setbacks by wearing a face covering and maintaining social distancing.” But under Abbott’s executive orders, Samaniego cannot mandate masks.

Linda Chew, judge of the 327th District Court, issued the 2021 COVID-19 Minimum Health Standards Protocols for the El Paso County judiciary in June.

The county amended its order to comply with the health standards that will remain in effect until at least October.

According to the county’s minimum health standards, safety protocols include requiring face coverings to enter the County Courthouse, and while in common areas. Limited occupancy and social distancing measures are also being implemented and face masks are required in courtrooms unless judges allow attendees to remove them.

For more information about meetings schedules:

Visit the El Paso County website at epcounty.com

Visit the city of El Paso website at elpasotexas.gov

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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