Patricia Priego, Environmental Services Associate at University Medical Center, wipes a phone with a sanitizing solution on Thursday, June 18. As in this demonstration, Priego must wear full protective equipment and sanitize every surface when she cleans the rooms of COVID-19 patients. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Paso health authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza said on Monday he would issue an order requiring masks in indoor settings, including schools. The City Council voted 5-3 to approve a motion to join legal challenges to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders that strip local governments of the ability to issue mask mandates.

“It is my intent to have a local health authority order to have a mask mandate throughout the city and the county in all indoor establishments to include the schools,” Ocaranza told the City Council at an emergency meeting conducted over Zoom.

He said his order would align with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and could be re-evaluated in 30 days.

A city news release later Monday said the mandate would take effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday and would generally require everyone age 2 and older to wear a covering over their nose and mouth while inside most buildings. Exceptions will be made for people who have trouble breathing, a medical condition or a disability that prevents wearing face coverings. Masks won’t be required for people consuming food or drink, or for those exercising indoors when they are more than six feet away from other people.

The City Council took comments from 70 members of the public after Ocaranza made his announcement. Supporters of a mask mandate largely focused on the need to protect children in schools who aren’t eligible for vaccines. Arguments from opponents were based largely around individual freedoms and challenges to the effectiveness of masks that have been widely rejected by scientists.

“Dr. Ocaranza, I cannot thank you enough. I’m sitting next to my daughter at this moment who attends public school. And this is huge. I and so many parents are grateful. That’s all I want to say,” Xochitl Rodriguez said, her voice breaking.

Adolpho Telles, an El Paso business owner and former chairman of the county Republican Party, said the city was exceeding its authority.

“Each person, you’re talking about us as citizens, has the right to do what we think is appropriate for ourselves and our family,” Telles said.

The council voted 5-3 to challenge Abbott’s executive orders in court as a means of protecting Ocaranza’s mask mandate. City Reps. Joe Molinar, Claudia Rodriguez and Isabel Salcido cast dissenting votes; city Reps. Peter Svarzbein, Cassandra Hernandez, Alexsandra Annello, Henry Rivera and Cissy Lizarraga voted in favor.

Several other local governments and school districts have challenged Abbott’s orders, though the Texas Supreme Court on Sunday temporarily blocked local mask mandates in Dallas and San Antonio.

City Attorney Karla Nieman said a lawsuit against Abbott would be filed tonight and the city hoped to be heard by a judge on Tuesday.

Ocaranza’s order and the City Council vote came as the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Far West Texas reached its highest level since May. Hospitalizations are still well below the numbers from the crisis in the fall of 2020, state data show.

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, 98 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sunday in El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson counties, the highest number since 102 were hospitalized on May 14.

The region’s COVID-19 hospitalization numbers peaked at 1,108 on Nov. 10, 2020.

All but one of the hospitals in what the state calls Trauma Service Area I are in El Paso County. Culberson Hospital in Van Horn has 14 beds.

Although COVID-19 hospitalizations in Far West Texas are increasing, less than 5% of hospital beds in Trauma Service Area I were occupied on Sunday by COVID-19 patients. That’s the lowest percentage among Texas’ 24 trauma service areas. The highest rate is the area around Galveston, where more than 32% of beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Statewide, 18.9% of Texas hospital beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients on Sunday, according to state records.

According to DSHS data, 307 of the 1,988 hospital beds in Trauma Service Area I — 15.4% — were unoccupied on Sunday. Statewide, 12.6% of hospital beds were unoccupied on Sunday.   

County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, state Sen. César Blanco and State Board of Education Member Georgina Perez mentioned the availability of hospital beds on Saturday, when they asked Ocaranza to issue an order requiring masks in schools.

“Currently, the hospitals in the El Paso community are nearly at capacity treating non-COVID patients. El Paso is also experiencing a shortage of medical personnel to treat patients. These are patients who are suffering from heart attacks, stroke and other ailments. If a surge of COVID infections were to hit El Paso, the existing capacity issues would overwhelm El Paso’s hospital systems beyond the point that was seen last fall,” the three elected officials, all Democrats, said in a statement.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the percentage of hospital beds that are unoccupied in the El Paso region. According to state data, 15.4% of hospital beds in Trauma Service Area I were unoccupied as of Sunday.

Cover photo: Patricia Priego, environmental services associate at University Medical Center, wipes a phone with a sanitizing solution in June 2020. (Corrie Boudreaux/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.