EL PASO, Texas - El Paso County officials ordered a two-week shutdown of non-essential activities Thursday after the area's medical resources were overwhelmed by the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
County Judge Ricardo Samaniego announced the measure during a virtual news conference Thursday. Among the non-essential services ordered to be closed, effective at midnight Thursday, are tattoo, hair and nail salons, as well as gyms and in-person dining. He also appealed to residents to avoid all non-essential activities. Grocery and drug stores, funeral homes, health care services, and government activities were among the activities deemed essential.
Samaniego said all election-related activities, including campaigns and voting, also were deemed essential activities.
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"Our hospitals are at capacity, our medical professionals are overwhelmed, and if we don't respond we will see unprecedented levels of death," said Samaniego, the county's top elected official.
Samaniego assured that county officials "have done everything possible" to avoid shutting down the county's economy.
"We need to build capacity for hospitals, build capacity, to shore up contact tracing and identify hot spots," he said.
Samaniego said conversations with Gov. Greg Abbott for support "were not fruitful." "Had that support been forthcoming several weeks ago, this shutdown might not have been needed," Samaniego said.
Sunday night, Samaniego had ordered a daily curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. Violators could be fined $500 under the order, but the curfew did not apply to people who are going to or from work or out for essential services, including grocery stores and healthcare.
Yet each day for the past week, more than 1,000 new cases were confirmed in the westernmost Texas county. Also, persons with other health problems have chosen not to seek hospital treatment because they believed they would be turned away because of the COVID-19 crush, he said.
"The hard truth is that the persons who are dying are El Pasoans. They're not in Austin," he said.
A message to Abbott's office Thursday was not immediately returned.
However, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton reacted to the announcement on Twitter late Thursday saying, "El Paso County Judge Samaniego has no authority to shut down businesses in El Paso County. This is a direct violation of Gov. Abbott's executive order. My office is quickly exploring all legal actions."
El Paso officials reported two new COVID-19 deaths Thursday, bringing the total deaths to 585, and 1,128 new positive tests, bringing the total active cases there to more than 14,000. El Paso and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, with a combined metropolitan population of 3 million people, represent a hotspot in the deadly comeback of the virus across the entire U.S. Health officials blaming the spike on family gatherings, multiple generations living in the same household and younger people going out to shop or conduct business.
Earlier Thursday, Texas prison officials said Thursday they are giving N95 medical masks to people serving time in state facilities in the El Paso area and the Panhandle, where the coronavirus has surged in recent weeks.
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said it is standard procedure to give the respirators to inmates in custody in "areas that have seen a higher caseload."
Prisons throughout the U.S. have struggled to contain the spread of the virus because of close living quarters.
America's largest state prison system reported more 332 active COVID-19 cases and 8 units in precautionary lockdown across Texas, including one in El Paso as of Wednesday. The El Paso-area unit has one active COVID-19 inmate case, 16 employees who have tested positive, 111 inmates in medical restriction and five inmates in medical isolation, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's online case dashboard.
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N95 masks are used in industrial and medical settings. They filter out 95% of all airborne particles, including ones too tiny to be blocked by regular masks.
Earlier in the pandemic, state prison factories made cotton masks that staff and prisoners could wear to help reduce the spread of the virus.
Statewide, the active cases of coronavirus and the hospitalizations with the COVID-19 it causes continue to mount. On Thursday, 6,430 new coronavirus cases were reported statewide. Those and the addition of 396 previously unreported cases raised the number of confirmed cases for the pandemic to 886,820. Of those, an estimated 98,775 cases were active Thursday, the most since Aug. 28.
The true number of cases in Texas is likely higher though because many people haven't been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.
COVID-19 hospitalizations numbered 5,587 Thursday, 63 fewer than Wednesday when the most hospitalizations since Aug. 20 were reported. The 119 newly reported COVID-19 fatalities raised the Texas death toll to 17,819 since the pandemic first struck at the start of March.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and a cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.