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Court rules against El Paso shutdown as COVID-19 cases soar

A state appeals court ruled in favor of a group of local restaurants in El Paso, Texas, and halted the shutdown of nonessential businesses that was scheduled to last until December 1. The decision came as El Paso recorded 1,488 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday. Angela Kocherga, news director from NPR station KTEP, joins from El Paso to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As NewsHour reported yesterday, El Paso, Texas has seen the number of COVD-19 cases and deaths dramatically increase in recent days.

    Late yesterday, a state appeals court said it would not challenge a ruling against a county shut-down order, allowing the state and local restaurant owners to continue to operate.

    Angela Kocherga is news director from NPR station KTEP in El Paso, Texas.

    Angela, we've been hearing about the numbers increasing in El Paso, the pervasiveness of the virus in the population. What's also interesting is the attempts by the city to gain control and whether they have the authority to do so or not.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    That's been a legal battle in addition to the health care battle we're waging right now with hospitals filled to capacity. And that fight is really with the top elected official in Texas, it's the county judge, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego. And then our mayor has also been involved, but he really did not support a shutdown. And so that's what the battle's been about. Can we shut down non-essential businesses to slow the rampant spread of COVID? And we have heard from a Texas appeals court that the answer is no.

    A group of restaurant owners and the Texas attorney general challenged that shutdown, saying only the governor has the authority to do that. And we just heard from the court that, no, that's over. And so the judge said he's not going to challenge it and trying to figure out how to move forward and still protect lives.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So can the mayor or anybody impose things like curfews or what can they do to try to keep their population safe?

  • Angela Kocherga:

    No, this is really now across Texas, and we had so many counties and cities watching this closely. It's totally up to the governor to set the standards. So, for example, El Paso went back to 50 percent capacity, half capacity at businesses, when the goal was to shut down nonessential businesses. The curfew was also in place. That's over. An overnight curfew is no longer in place. So there really isn't that authority.

    Now, there are some limitations triggered by hospitalizations that happen across the state, but they were not as strict as a shutdown and a curfew.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When you are in the community in El Paso and you know that the numbers are going up in the hospitals, are people conscious of this? Are they aware of what's happening?

  • Angela Kocherga:

    Well, unfortunately, Hari, more and more people are being touched directly. They know a loved one or they personally have someone in their family, a coworker, a classmate. So they are hearing direct horror stories about this.

    And we heard from nurses in El Paso hospitals yesterday really imploring the court and state officials to please allow the shutdown to stay in place. They talked about the grim reality of being overworked, not having enough PPE, not having enough medical staff, and, of course, the sheer human tragedy that they're experiencing.

    Local officials had a fatality management meeting. People are passing away so quickly and so many. They also said El Paso, they used a word people don't want to hear, is on the verge of rationing care. So that that's a very scary thing for people to hear. And the hope is that this message will get across to individuals.

    You know, Hari, it's not just people going out having family gatherings, which, of course, is a problem. But we have a lot of essential workers in El Paso who have to go to work and unfortunately are exposed on the job.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How concerned are these doctors, these public health officials about Thanksgiving and Christmas?

  • Angela Kocherga:

    They're very concerned.

    El Paso, you know, our strength here is that we're very family oriented and gatherings, large, multigenerational, extended family gatherings are the norm. And those bonds stretch across the border on both sides. So there's a real fear that people will get together with family members who are not in their households. And so every single, no matter how much local authorities or state authorities may have disagreed on the shutdown, everyone is in agreement trying to get this message out right before Thanksgiving. Please don't do it, because that could lead to, we know what it leads to: Another spike in cases, more hospitalizations and then more deaths.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Angela Kocherga, news director for KTEP, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Angela Kocherga:

    Thank you. Hari.

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