6:05 p.m. Jan. 11: This story has been updated with information on current staffing levels and demand at El Paso’s COVID-19 testing sites.
The parking lot is empty and lights are off at Savage Goods, a cafe near Downtown El Paso that has temporarily shuttered because of staffing shortages — first one employee called in to report COVID-19 symptoms, then another, then another.
With a total staff of 12 and five employees already out, owner Michelle Savage made a decision last week. “At this point, it would be irresponsible and unwise to keep pushing,” said a statement posted Jan. 4 on Savage Goods’ Instagram account. “The best thing for us to do right now is pause.”
The city reported more than 5,800 new cases of COVID-19 from last week, the highest weekly total since November 2020. But those numbers don’t include results from at-home kits that many people are using to test for COVID. The number of people requiring hospital treatment for COVID-19 has been less than half the numbers seen in the fall 2020 wave, reinforcing evidence that the omicron variant of the virus is more contagious but less virulent than earlier strains.
Savage Goods is not alone in struggling with growing numbers of employees out sick with COVID-19. Last week, the city government reported that 20% of staff at the COVID-19 testing megasites were out sick, causing increased lines and delays for those seeking tests. Those delays in testing are now compounding staffing problems for other local businesses and public services.
“We’re in the same boat with everyone in the city,” said Ryan Urrutia, commander at the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, where 10% of staff are currently out sick with COVID-19. That includes law enforcement and detention officers at the jails, along with civilian staff, like clerks and the people who work in the jail kitchens.
“What’s putting us in a bad situation is the lack of being able to get a test result back in a (short) amount of time,” he said.
The El Paso Police Department had 133 staff members out sick as of Tuesday, roughly 8% of its total ranks, and the El Paso Fire Department had 108 staff members out, nearly 10% of total staff, according to city spokesperson Laura Cruz-Acosta.
She noted that there have been “no significant operational impacts to city services” linked to the COVID-19 staffing shortages, other than El Paso Fire Chief Mario D’Agostino’s statements last week that the Fire Department had needed to respond with overtime and reassignments in order to maintain minimum staffing levels.
Cruz-Acosta said the testing megasites are back to pre-Christmas staffing levels, but high demand for testing is causing long lines.
“Last week the mega testing sites were reporting about four-hour wait times; and currently, we are experiencing two hour wait times due to the high testing demands at our mega sites,” she said, adding that the mega sites and city clinics are handling about 67 percent of the community’s testing demands.
As of Jan. 11, the city’s COVID-19 monitoring website reported that just 22% of test results were received within three days, while the number of tests has increased dramatically in recent weeks. As of Jan. 10, the number of daily COVID-19 tests by the city increased 179% compared to the week of Christmas.
El Pasoans may also notice the effects of COVID-19 staffing shortages through empty shelves at the grocery store, as the omicron variant leads to record-breaking numbers of new cases nationwide. The Washington Post reported that 80,000 truck drivers were out sick with COVID-19 as of Monday, along with 10% of workers at food manufacturing facilities.
For local businesses like Savage Goods, Piedmont Cafe and others that have had to temporarily close because of staffing issues, “it’s just been exhausting,” Savage said.
“Running a small business is not easy on good days,” she said. “But adding a global pandemic that has felt never-ending really has added this extra layer of difficulty that has been really draining for the past … almost two years now.”
She said community support has made a huge difference in weathering the pandemic.
“These are decisions that business owners really struggle to make because of public perception but also huge financial loss. And so whenever people can support with gift cards or just being understanding that these are tough decisions we have to make, that support goes a long way.”
Featured photo: A sign on the door of Savage Goods explains the cafe’s decision to temporarily close in response to employee cases of COVID-19. (René Kladzyk)