Editor’s Note: This story has been updated after initial publication to include information about Gov. Greg Abbott permitting bars to reopen and remarks from city and county leaders.
When Gov. Greg Abbott relaxed how many people can dine at restaurants and occupy other businesses in El Paso and across Texas, there was a condition: Coronavirus hospitalizations must stay low.
Abbott let restaurants, retail stores, office buildings, manufacturing facilities, gyms, museums and libraries increase their capacity from 50% to 75% on Sept. 21.
On Wednesday, Abbott said other businesses limited to 50% capacity, such as movie theaters and bowling alleys, could expand capacity to 75% on Oct. 14. He also permitted bars in the state to open at up to 50% capacity with county judge approval.
But the order only applies to regions without “high hospitalizations” — areas with seven consecutive days in which the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 exceed 15% of total hospitalizations.
Roughly three weeks after the September order went into effect, El Paso County’s numbers seem headed in the wrong direction.
“We are very concerned because we haven’t seen any slowdown or plateau in the number of positive cases or in the hospitalizations,” said Dr. Hector Ocaranza, the city-county health authority. “It’s not the places that are open, but how the people responded to that and how the people (are) bringing their guard down.”
Coronavirus patients accounted for 14% of all hospitalizations in El Paso County as of Thursday and Friday, city data shows. They accounted for 15% on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Local governments can’t impose restrictions on services that exceed the governor’s orders or allow gatherings or services it prohibits.
Any possible future mandated reversal from 75% capacity to 50% would be based on El Paso’s County’s Trauma Service Area, which also includes rural Hudspeth and Culberson counties.
Coronavirus patients in the three-county area accounted for roughly 13.6% of total hospitalizations, the Texas Department of State Health Services reported Friday.
Rural Hudspeth and Culberson counties have seen just a fraction of the thousands of coronavirus cases in El Paso County. The Department of State Health Services reports 65 positive cases in neighboring Hudspeth County and 60 in Culberson County.
There have been 27,394 cases in El Paso County as of Friday, when the city reported 418 new cases and four more deaths. The county’s death toll has reached 545. The county reported 523 new cases Thursday.
Three regions of the state comprised of 14 counties were exempt from the order due to high hospitalizations as of Tuesday. Cities within those regions included Laredo, Waco and Victoria.
‘I’m hopeful we can get our arms around this’
The percent of total COVID-19 hospitalizations — which was at 14% when Mayor Dee Margo spoke with the El Paso Times on Monday — is a cause of concern, he said.
But he wasn’t calling for a rollback of Abbott’s executive order for El Paso. He also didn’t rule out such a request.
“We’ll do what we need to do, but we do think that there are other things from an intervention standpoint,” Margo said.
In a subsequent interview Wednesday, Margo said he’d like to see more data related to what might be driving the increasing numbers.
“In addition to the health issues, our economy can’t take much more,” Margo said. “That concerns me as much as anything.”
A spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott did not return a request for comment on whether the governor would consider an exemption for El Paso if it meets the threshold for needing rollbacks, but the greater three-county area does not.
If a Trauma Service Area goes above the 15% threshold for four days in a row, the Department of State Health Services will contact the service area’s leadership to inform them that they need to reduce occupancy if the region stays above 15% for the full seven days, department spokesperson Lara Anton said.
Local leaders will get a letter when they hit that point and again when they are allowed to resume 75% occupancy at applicable businesses, Anton said.
Some interventions the city could take include limiting sporting events and having restaurants close when they stop serving food, to discourage people from staying at restaurants just to drink alcohol.
“It’s a moving target,” Margo said. “We’re gonna do whatever we need to do, but I’m hopeful we can get our arms around this. … We’re apparently letting our guards down.”
Samaniego, in an interview Wednesday, said the problem isn’t going from 50% to 75% — it’s “how we handle the situation.”
Ocaranza said there’s a need for a behavioral change in the community.
“Because even if we roll back … the people are the ones that drive the number of positive cases,” he said. “It’s extremely important for people to understand that, if you’ve been exposed, just don’t go out and expose more people.”
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Hospitals see increase in patients, have sufficient capacity
El Paso area hospitals reported seeing an increase in coronavirus patients.
The city reported Friday that 207 patients were hospitalized, 68 of whom were in the ICU.
The Hospitals of Providence in a Monday statement said: “As the city of El Paso has seen a rise in COVID-19 cases since Labor Day, our hospitals have seen a rise in COVID-19 patients. Our network of hospitals continues to have capacity, but we are closely monitoring and will adjust as needed.”
At University Medical Center of El Paso as of Wednesday, 50 inpatient beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients, 15% of total hospital bed capacity, said UMC spokesperson Ryan Mielke. Mielke said additional beds have been made available to accommodate coronavirus patients.
Mielke previously said the hospital is anticipating an increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the fall.
Local officials have urged El Pasoans to get flu shots as the flu season begins to help keep rooms available for COVID-19 patients and others in need of care.
Las Palmas Del Sol Healthcare saw its lowest number of hospitalizations in three months in early September and has since seen a slow upward trend, according to Las Palmas CEO Don Karl and Del Sol CEO David Shimp.
The hospitals have sufficient ER and ICU capacity to meet patients’ needs and can add more capacity if needed, they said in an emailed statement Tuesday.
Abbott announces more openings
Recent contact-tracing efforts have given some insight into El Paso’s coronavirus cases.
During the two-week period of Sept. 17 to Sept. 30, Margo said contact-tracing investigations on more than 2,000 cases found that 13.82% of cases were related to visiting stores and 13.75% were related to travel.
Additionally, 12.5% of cases were linked to day cares and 7.5% to restaurants. Other cases were tied to family gatherings, large gatherings, gyms, not wearing a mask and places of worship.
Margo also noted that 40% of positive cases are from people in their 20s and 30s.
But despite El Paso’s climbing cases, more openings are on the horizon for Texas.
Bars were not reopened under Abbott’s September order.
However, on Wednesday, the governor announced that bars could reopen with the approval of the local county judge.
Texans have continued to keep COVID under control.
The hospitalizations, number of new positive cases, and positivity rate remain contained. Today was one of the lowest for fatalities in a long time.
I will be announcing more openings soon.
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) October 5, 2020
There have been 785,830 coronavirus cases in Texas and 16,432 fatalities, according to Department of State Health Services data from Friday.
Bars were allowed to open in May, before again being shuttered in June as coronavirus cases rose and hospitals in some cities were at risk of being overrun. Some bars have been able to stay open by operating as restaurants.
Whether bars reopen in El Paso remains to be seen. El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego in a statement Wednesday said he’d make a decision on whether to opt-in on bars reopening in the coming days that’s “in the best interest of the community based upon the scientific data concerning Covid-19 in our community.”
But local officials remain concerned about the upward trend in El Paso’s coronavirus cases.
“The problem is, if we don’t wear face covering and maintain the distancing, we’re gonna shoot ourselves in the foot,” Margo said Wednesday. “It’s gonna get worse, and then the governor will take action that we don’t have control over.”
El Paso Times reporter Lauren Villagran contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Rising coronavirus cases in El Paso County could impact business reopenings