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Coronavirus in El Paso: Latest updates

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Update April 3, 10 a.m.: COVID-19 cases up to 78; including one child

The number of COVID-19 cases in El Paso County now stands at 78, city officials said Thursday evening, reminding residents of the county's amended and stricter emergency directive.

Among the confirmed cases are 34 males and 44 females, one patient age 12 or younger, two teens and 19 people their 20s.

Residents are to stay in their home, and if they must run essential errands they should to do so by themselves and avoid taking seniors and children with them. Residents must also maintain a distance of at least six feet from others.

Scenes Around El Paso

The intersection of SPUR 1966 and Schuster near UTEP sees limited traffic as schools remain closed and the county's stay-at-home order remains in effect. At center is the sculpture titled 'The Cloud.'

Update April 1, 8 p.m.: COVID-19 cases jump as city tightens restrictions, closes parks

All of El Paso's parks, pools and recreation centers will be off limits beginning at midnight as city and county officials toughen stay-at-home orders following a jump in COVID-19 cases in the borderland.

The new measures are aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus. 

The city of El Paso Department of Public Health has reported 18 new coronavirus infections, bringing the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the borderland to 68.

According to a city news release, under the new orders:

- "All individuals living within the city of El Paso are directed to stay at home or at their place of residence unless they are performing essential duties, working in an essential business, government, etc. Public and private gatherings of any number of people are prohibited."

- "Any travel is restricted to approved activities. Anyone returning from travel of 100 miles or more outside the city must self-quarantine for 14 days."

- "Any public of private gatherings at any recreational area, park, pool or recreational facility is prohibited. This includes hike and bike trails, whether formally recognized by the city or not; including, but not limited to any golfing in public or private courses; any gathering in school recreation areas, tennis clubs, and any other private recreational club; the area near Socorro Independent School District Student Activities Complex (SAC) located near 1300 Joe Battle Boulevard; all to include the use of any type of recreational vehicle at any outdoor area."

- "Critical infrastructure and construction activities that are exempt are more clearly defined."

- "Business owners must provide mandatory rest breaks of at least 15 minutes every four hours so workers can follow hygiene guidelines. Additionally, businesses can take no adverse action against an employee who has been quarantined or advised to self-quarantine due to possible exposure."


Update March 31, 8 p.m.: Number of confirmed coronavirus cases grows to 50

The city of El Paso Department of Public Health has reported four new coronavirus infections, bringing the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the borderland to 50.

That is only the number of cases that have been identified; the actual number could be higher. It also does not include cases at Fort Bliss or those identified by private labs.

COVID numbers El Paso 3-31

Only includes cases identified by the city public health department.

"We truly don’t know what the numbers are," U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso, said in a virtual town hall earlier Tuesday. "We don’t know how many in El Paso, Texas and the nation are carriers for the coronavirus. And we don’t know that because we don’t have enough tests."

Also on Tuesday, the city and county were expected to announce stricter "stay home, work safe" restrictions, but rescheduled the announcement for later in the week so officials could review the new executive order issued by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. He has urged Texans to stay home unless they are taking part in essential services and activities.

"We cannot afford to be complacent in the war against this virus and compromise the lives of those who are susceptible,” said Dr. Hector Ocaranza with the City/County Health Authority. “When we ask you to stay home you need to stay home.”

Two weeks after the city issued its first orders for workplaces to implement social distancing, the number of inspections to enforce the orders has increased to 4,660, according to a news release.

So far, officials with the city Environmental Services Department, Department of Public Health and the Fire Department have issued 271 warnings and two citations.

“Citations can cost an individual up to $1,000 or up to 180 days in jail, additionally they may risk losing their city permits," Jorge Rodriguez, the emergency management coordinator, said in a statement.


Update March 31, 5:30 p.m.: El Pasoans Fighting Hunger needs volunteers

Food bank Facebook

El Pasoans Fighting Hunger needs more volunteers

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to lead to business closures and layoffs, the demand for food from area food banks has grown while the number of volunteers has dropped substantially.

The line to receive a box of food at El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank has stretched as long as two miles, and the nonprofit says the pandemic has caused a food crisis in the borderland.

The food bank says it needs in-person volunteers and has taken measures to keep volunteers safe; it needs remote volunteers, who can help by making phone calls to recruit volunteers or remind them of their shifts; and it needs financial support.

For more information or to volunteer, go online to elpasoansfightinghunger.org.

City expands drive-thru coronavirus testing: The Department of Public Health announced that the drive-thru COVID-19 testing site is now open to El Pasoans of any age, with symptoms and underlying medical conditions.

It is also open to:

  • Residents 65 years of age or older with symptoms
  • First responders and health care workers with symptoms
  • Individuals evaluated by their medical provider and provided with a lab order through Quest Diagnostics

Specimens are now collected 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. 

A physician’s order or insurance is not required. However, the city says staff may still ask for orders and insurance as a part of the process.

Patients who qualify can call 915-212-0783 to make an appointment. Information: EPStrong.org.

Drive-thru guidelines

Update March 31, 1:30 p.m.: Giles Volvo provides errand service for seniors

Giles Volvo Cars of El Paso is providing an "essential errand running service" for seniors through April 12. Services include grocery shopping, picking up prescriptions and dropping off cars for service.

It is available 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, within a 15 mile radius of the dealership at 6585 S. Desert. Call Giles Volvo at 915-243-7091 for assistance.

“Now more than ever, we feel it is our obligation to help our senior citizens during this most unfortunate time," Bob Giles, CEO of Giles Automotive, said in a statement. "They are the most vulnerable and many are in desperate need of a helping hand."


Update March 31, 10 a.m.: Workforce Solutions Borderplex announces jobs

Workforce Solutions Borderplex on Tuesday shared more job opportunities. Jobseekers can create a profile, search and apply for jobs at www.WorkInTexas.com.

The number of COVID-19 cases in El Paso continues to rise, and so does the economic impact. Last week, a record number of El Pasoans filed for unemployment. Some of the hardest-hit industries are bar, restaurant and personal services.

The 30 employers listed below have immediate job openings:

Jobs 3-31

Update March 30, 4:30 p.m.: City and county launch fund to assist small businesses in El Paso

The city and county have each approved $1 million in funding to establish the Small Business Emergency Relief Program.

The program will be managed by LiftFund, a nonprofit that helps finance new small business and startup companies, and will allow eligible businesses to apply for zero interest loans and some grants.

“During this time of uncertainty, many small businesses have been forced to close in order to protect the community from the spread of COVID-19, and this program will provide an opportunity for them to reopen after restrictions are lifted,” El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said in a statement. “We need to come together and support our local businesses as we recover economically.”

According to a news release, businesses with 10 employees or less can apply for a loan of up to $25,000, and businesses with five employees or less can apply for a grant of up to $5,000.

LiftFund will start taking applications Wednesday, April 1, on its website: LiftFund.com.

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 has grown to 46. On Monday, the city of El Paso Department of Public Health reported six new cases.

"Covering your cough, avoiding touching your face, practicing regular hand-washing and cleaning common areas with disinfectant continue to be stressed," the city said in a news release.

Symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

The COVID-19 hotline is operational from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Call 211 and select option six.


Update March 30, 2 p.m.: Physician at Las Palmas Medical Center diagnosed with COVID-19

Las Palmas Medical Center has confirmed a physician at the hospital has been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The name of the physician was not released. In a statement, Dr. Oscar Vega, chief medical officer with Las Palmas Medical Center, said:

"Upon learning of this physician's diagnosis, we immediately notified public health authorities and consulted with epidemiology and infection prevention experts. In coordination with the El Paso Department of Public Health, we have been tracing the potential exposure to patients, physicians and staff, based on the timeline of this incident, and in consultation with these experts, we have been assessing risk to each person potentially exposed based on their unique circumstances.

"We are in the process of contacting all patients and providers who may require further observation and/or testing based on our risk assessment.

"Unfortunately, exposure to health care workers is becoming more commonplace at hospitals across the country. We are doing all we can to protect our patients and our healthcare providers on the frontlines of this pandemic.

"This exposure was not the result of a breach of protocol in our hospitals, and we will continue to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s best practices for preventing the spread of the coronavirus.”


Update March 30, 10:30 a.m.: COVID-19 cases grow to 40, city investigating community spread

COVID graph 3/30

On Sunday, the city of El Paso Department of Public Health confirmed it is investigating evidence of “community spread” of the coronavirus in El Paso, as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 grows to 40.

According to the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, community spread "means people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected."

According to a news release, the health department is working with the city and county to prepare stricter orders "within the next 24 to 48 hours."

The positive cases in El Paso County include 26 females and 14 males.

COVID Map 3-30

“As expected, we now have evidence of community spread. We understand that the community is getting increasingly distressed about the growing number of COVID-19 cases," Dr. Hector Ocaranza with the health department said in a statement. "For that reason, I am working with our community leaders to implement stricter orders that we are currently drafting and plan to implement very soon.

“We must all understand that if we want to stop this virus each person must help health care workers and first responders by doing their civic duty and complying with these health orders. I will continue to repeat myself — as there is no cure for this virus at this time — we must all do our part by strictly practicing social distancing, stay at home as ordered and follow the CDC guidelines.”


Update March 26: City expands drive-thru testing

COVID testing

The city's Department of Public Health is operating a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site 

The Department of Public Health announced that the drive-thru COVID-19 testing site is now open to residents 65 years of age or older who have a temperature of 99.6 F or higher.

Previously, the drive-thru site was only available to first responders, health care workers and patients with a doctor's order.

“We are moving into the second phase of our testing and are now focusing our efforts on members of our community who may belong to high risk groups and could be more seriously affected by the disease,” Dr. Hector Ocaranza with the health department said in a statement.

The testing is free and requires no insurance coverage.

Seniors can make an appointment by calling 915-494-0982. It's open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.


Update March 25, 3:30: COVID-19 cases jump to 21

The city of El Paso Department of Public Health reported Wednesday that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases has grown to 21 in El Paso County – a significant jump from the 12 cases it reported Tuesday.

“What we know is the majority of those cases are people in middle age, ages 30 to 50,” Dr. Hector Ocaranza with the health department said at the news conference. “We are receiving reports from outside labs and still doing our investigations to provide more information in regards to these cases.”

Since Monday, the city’s health department has done “close to 100 tests” for COVID-19, according to deputy fire chief Jorge Rodriguez, head of the El Paso City and County Office of Emergency Management.

Ocaranza said he expects that “pretty soon we will begin to see the community spread of the virus” and urged El Pasoans to follow the “stay home, work safe” order.

“Please follow the orders, he said. “This is the right time to do something good for our community so we can go back to normal.”


Update March 25, 1:30 p.m.: El Paso documentaries released free online

El Paso-based Capstone Productions has released its Heritage Gold TV series for free viewing online at YouTube.com/ElPasoHistoryTV, providing an educational and entertaining resource for children and adults during the coronavirus emergency.

“El Paso history is free on our YouTube channel, with more than 120 TV programs and segments about El Paso history,” Jackson Polk, producer of the history segments, said in a statement. “We worked for two decades to produce our very popular DVDs about El Paso history that were sold in stores. Now is the time to make them available for home schooling and general viewing at no cost to the public.”

Titles include “Legends of El Paso’s Mountains,” “El Paso’s Hueco Tanks,” “Gunfights of the Old West” and “Mexican Revolution Sites in El Paso.”


Update March 24, 10:30 a.m.: City and county issue 'stay home, work safe' order

Costco lines

Customers line up outside of Costco before opening on Wednesday, March 25.

The city and county have issued a “stay home, work safe” order for the area, their most stringent measure yet. It goes into effect tonight at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, March 24, and will be in effect "until further notice."

“The spirit of the order is very clear, if you stay at home and you work safe we are going to be able to contain this virus,” El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said at a press conference.

Those who violate the order could face a fine of up to $1,000 or be jailed for up to 180 days, according to a press release.

“It is a necessary step we need to take in order to protect our community. We do have positive cases of COVID-19 in our community,” said Dr. Hector Ocaranza with the El Paso Department of Public Health.

He added, “We cannot afford to overwhelm our health services.”

According to the press release, the order "is directing the public to remain at their residence except to obtain essential services or engage in essential activities and work for essential business and government services."

The order applies to everyone in El Paso County with the exceptions of "essential businesses and activities," which includes emergency personnel, health care personnel, groceries, financial, critical trades, postal services, food delivery or pick-up, home-based care, childcare, and those performing essential government functions."

The city announced that there are a total of 12 COVID-19 cases that have been identified in El Paso County. This does not include cases at Fort Bliss.


Update March 24, 9:30 a.m.: City establishes COVID-19 hotline

The Department of Public Health has established a hotline for COVID-19 information: 915-212-6843 or (915) 21-COVID.

The hotline is open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

“This new hotline will be focused on answering questions about the disease itself and critical information regarding the COVID-19 impact to the members of our community,” said Ruth Castillo, the Department of Public Health preparedness manager.

Update March 23, 4 p.m.: Fund established to provide relief to food and beverage workers

Chick-fil-A Mesa

The Chick-fil-A on North Mesa on the Westside. The restaurants have closed their dining room seating.

A group of service industry volunteers led by Maggie Asfahani, owner of Salt + Honey Bakery Café, has established a fund to help food and beverage workers who have been laid off or are working significantly reduced hours.

“Restaurants, bars and coffee shops are inherently social places, so guidance from health authorities to limit exposure to crowds and to practice social distancing hit us all hard,” Asfahani said in a news release. “We were already hurting, but the executive order that restaurants close their dining rooms forced many restaurants, including mine, to temporarily close and lay off the employees who are the backbone of our business.”

The fund is managed by the Paso del Norte Community Foundation, and the money will be distributed by Workforce Solutions Borderplex, which will make $50 payments via PayPal to qualifying applicants.

For more information, to apply or to donate, visit pdnfoundation.org/give-to-a-fund/ep-workers-fund

Abundant Living Faith Center has joined with El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank to distribute food from its Westside church.

Beginning Tuesday, it will distribute 1,000 boxes a day. They will be available 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on a first-come, first-served basis, according to a news release.

"Giving to our community is our way of fighting fear with faith,” lead pastor Shannon Nieman said in a statement.


Update: March 23, 9 a.m.: Hospitals limit visitors

The Hospitals of Providence, Las Palmas Del Sol Healthcare and University Medical Center of El Paso have implemented a no-visitor policy in all hospitals.

"While we understand the importance of having the support of loved ones during a hospital visit or stay, we must prioritize the health and safety of our patients and caregivers during this unprecedented pandemic," they said in a joint statement.

There are some exceptions. One caregiver may accompany laboring and post-partum patients; patients with disabilities or impairments or who are elderly; patients in the neonatal ICU and pediatric units; patients requiring surgery or other emergency or trauma-related medical procedures; and patients requiring end-of-life care.

El Paso Children’s Hospital and Providence Children’s Hospital are limited to one parent/legal guardian at a time.

On Monday, the city's Department of Public Health reported its seventh positive case of COVID-19.

The latest case involves a woman in her 50s who had traveled recently in the U.S., according to a news release. She is self-isolating and recovering at home.

Three others with COVID-19 were tested elsewhere but are now in El Paso, bringing the total number to ten.

The Public Health Laboratory, which conducts tests for the region, had tested  123 specimens as of March 22, according to the city.


Update March 21: Job opportunities

Workforce Solutions Borderplex announced hundreds of available jobs in the borderland. Jobseekers can create a profile, search and apply for jobs at www.WorkInTexas.com.

  • Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) is looking to fill at least 10 Temporary Customer Service Rep II positions at the West Texas Tele Center at 1359 Lomaland Drive.

More than 500 positions are available with the businesses below:

  • Albertsons
  • Alorica
  • Doña Ana County Detention Center
  • Lowe’s (cashiers, delivery drivers, sales positions and overnight supervisors)
  • RoofToppers El Paso
  • Sky Transportation
  • Spartan Construction
  • U.S. Census
  • Valley Super Market
  • Vista Supermarkets
  • Walmart

Update March 20, 1:20 p.m.: Opening of Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park delayed

The Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park announced that the opening of the newly restored historic hotel has been delayed. The hotel issued a statement:

“The Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park stands in solidarity with our country’s current stance on social distancing and the preventative measures needed to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"At this time, we have made the difficult but necessary decision to postpone our reopening to a date later this spring. Our entire hotel team stands behind this decision as it is our responsibility to act in the best interest of our employees and future guests.

"We will continue to monitor state and national health advisories and mandates, and we will announce a new opening date when appropriate.

"We look forward to opening our doors and ushering in the next era of The Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park very soon. From the re-imagination of La Perla, our spectacular rooftop bar which was once Elizabeth Taylor’s penthouse, to the innovative dining experience our executive chef Andres Padilla will offer at Ámbar Restaurante, the transformation has been remarkable, and we can’t wait to share it with you.”


Update March 19, 3:30 p.m.: Three more COVID-19 cases identified

Mayor Dee Margo announced at a press conference Thursday afternoon that there have been three new COVID-19 cases identified in El Paso County. That brings the total number of cases reported to six.

“I tell you I expect more,” he said. “The more we test, the more we can expect. That’s just the numbers.”

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said all of the positive cases so far have been travel related and there has been no evidence of community-wide spread.

“This is not a time for the community to panic,” he said.

The fourth patient is a female in her late 60s, the fifth is a female in her late teens and the sixth case involves a male in his 20s, according to the city.

So far more than 60 people have been tested and there are 800 tests available in El Paso, according to the city.

Margo also announced that the city is launching mobile test sites. They are exclusively for first responders and medical personnel.

Dr. Hector Ocaranza with the El Paso Department of Public Health said all of the patients who have tested positive in El Paso County are recovering and one remains in the hospital.


 

Update March 18, 4:30 p.m.: Rec centers, libraries, zoo to close

The city will close all recreation centers, aquatic facilities, libraries, museums and the El Paso Zoo at 5 p.m. today, Wednesday, March 18, until further notice.

Animal Services will close to the public beginning Thursday, March 19. El Paso Animal Services will not accept any stray animals from the public at the shelter. Owner reclaims, adoptions, and fosters will be facilitated by phone only and fulfilled by curbside service or home delivery. Info: https://elpasoanimalservices.org

Update March 18, 3 p.m.: Cielo Vista Mall to close

Cielo Vista Mall will close at 7 p.m. Wednesday and remained closed through March 29 to address COVID-19 concerns. 

Sunland Park Mall is open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, but will not open early for walking, according to its website.

Bassett Place and the Outlet Shoppes of El Paso remain open but retailers have the option to determine their own hours or closures, both reported on their respective websites.

Update March 17, 3:30 p.m.: Bars and clubs will close, restaurants limit capacity to 50%

The El Paso City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved an emergency ordinance outlining city plans on how to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

Effective immediately, all bars and clubs in the city must close. Restaurants must limit their capacity to 50%, with no more than six people per table and with each table six feet away.

Dr. Hector Ocaranza with the city’s health department outlined recommendations for closures during the next two weeks. He is able to enforce those recommendations regardless of what City Council does, said City Attorney Karla Nieman. 

Officials in Juárez on Tuesday announced the city's first coronavirus case. The patient is a 29-year-old man who recently traveled to Italy, officials said. 

As El Paso joins other large Texas cities in enforcing bar closures, there are several other establishments that are taking further steps or closing altogether. 

Several restaurants, including Mesa Street Grill and Chick-fil-A, have fully closed their dining rooms and are only offering take-out or delivery options.

Large national chains, including places like Macy’s and Sephora, are closed. 

There are also changes to hospital visiting hours. Places like the El Paso VA are not allowing visitors. 


 

Update March 16, 6 p.m.: Third case of COVID-19 confirmed in El Paso

 

The city's Department of Public Health has reported a third positive test result for COVID-19 in El Paso County.

The University of Texas at El Paso said in a news release that the student returned from "extended overseas travel" Saturday, March 14, and went "directly into self-isolation as directed by UTEP's Department of Environmental Health and Safety."

The patient, who is in her late teens and is recovering at home, had not been on campus since her return to El Paso, according to a news release. UTEP has told all of its students returning from overseas to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return.

No further information was immediately available.

“As more El Pasoans begin to qualify for testing, we will begin to see more presumptive positive cases,” Angela Mora, interim assistant public health director, said in a statement. “While we wish we didn’t have more positives, it is a good sign that the system in place is working and that we are being effective in helping to prevent the spread of this disease.”


Update March 16, 4 p.m.: Grocery stores to hold special hours for elderly shoppers

Grocery stores across the nation are tightening their hours so that facilities can get restocked and scrubbed down each night. There are also some supermarkets that are holding special hours for only the elderly to go in and shop.

Vista Supermarket, a local chain, will hold hours for shoppers 65 and older from 6:30 to 7 a.m each day. The store will still be open for regular business hours until 10 p.m., according to a Facebook post from the store.

The Small Business Association on Monday announced it would provide small businesses impacted by COVID-19 up to $2 million in disaster assistance loans. The process for applying for such a loan is detailed at SBA.gov.

The city on Tuesday will discuss a price control resolution that would bar individuals from reselling certain goods at a higher price than they were on March 13.


 

Update March 16: Two positive cases of COVID-19 reported in El Paso 

Efforts to contain the COVID-19 coronavirus are quickly evolving as city leaders and local business reckon with how to handle shutdowns and disruptions.

The second case of COVID-19 in El Paso was announced on Saturday afternoon. Both patients are men in their 40s, officials said, but no other information has been released.

The El Paso Central Business Association has postponed its March luncheon, which was originally scheduled with keynote speaker state Rep. César Blanco for noon Wednesday, March 18.

All public school districts, including UTEP, are on extended spring break and will return on April 6.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar will hold a telephone town hall with local health officials and experts to provide an update and answer questions on the coronavirus pandemic at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, March 18.

Spanish-language translation will be provided. El Pasoans can join the conversation by calling (866) 416-5213.

The El Paso County Sheriff's Office announced it has canceled the graduation ceremony for its 2020-21 detention officer class originally scheduled for March 20. The Rio Grande Cancer Foundation postponed all its classes "until further notice."

El Paso Opera has canceled all of its "Bon Appétit!" shows in El Paso and Las Cruces, along with the after party.

"I am happy to refund your ticket purchase. However, I also would encourage you to consider the ticket purchase as a donation to our organization," El Paso Opera wrote in an email. "These are difficult times for arts organizations in the country. There is a lot of uncertainty and concern."

The city has announced it will close its daycare and pre-school programs at the Galatzan and Veterans Recreation Center effective Wednesday, March 18, "until further notice."

The city has partnered with the YWCA Paso del Norte Region to provide service to impacted families.

Nationwide about 3,500 cases have been reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control. There have been about 70 deaths, according to the CDC.

 


 Update March 13: City and county declare state of emergency

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo and El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego joined President Trump and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday in declaring a state of emergency to contend with the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the country.

“I am declaring a state of emergency in the city of El Paso,” Margo said. “This will open the door to resources that could normally not be available. While the (World Health Organization) has declared a pandemic, there is no reason to panic.

“We’re simply being proactive and following what the state and federal government have declared.”

Nonetheless, panicky shoppers are clearing store shelves of paper products, cleansers and bleach in El Paso and other communities across the state and nation.

Shaking hands is out, elbow bumps and social distancing are in, and many are upset about it all. Others are worried that the precautions being taken against the spread of the coronavirus haven’t gone far enough.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, poses little threat to the young, but can be hard on and even deadly to the elderly and those with respiratory conditions like asthma or who are smokers or overweight.

There were 46 known coronavirus cases in Texas as of Friday. El Paso has yet to see its first case of COVID-19, but precautions by institutions and individuals before its arrival are already having a significant impact on the community’s families.

Local school districts have canceled all student activities and extended their spring breaks to keep students home and away from gatherings but creating problems for parents who have no one at home to care for their children.

UTEP President Heather Wilson announced on Friday that spring break will be extended to March 30, and that classes will be conducted remotely, meaning students will attend classes online.

“In cases where course content cannot be delivered remotely, such as some laboratories and performing arts courses, faculty should work to reconfigure their classes for alternative delivery that would achieve social distancing,” Wilson’s message to students read.

Similar practices will apply to employees where possible.

UTEP had already canceled the Conference-USA tournament along with all official student and faculty travel and various other group activities.

Texas Tech Health Sciences Center El Paso also announced Friday that classes there will be conducted online with few exceptions.

El Paso ISD has extended its upcoming spring break by a week and New Mexico, which has seen six cases so far, has suspended all K-12 classes for three weeks and may extend the closures.

The Chihuahuas baseball and Locomotive soccer seasons are on hold. The city of El Paso has suspended special programming at parks and all other locations until further notice.

Other cities have gone much farther, including Austin’s cancellation of South by Southwest concerts and other events, which is expected to deal a devastating blow to the city’s economy.

At a press conference Wednesday, El Paso city and county officials sought to dampen public fears by offering assurances that El Paso County remains free of COVID-19 and that preparations are in place for when cases turn up locally.

“The city of El Paso, along with its public and private partners, including the county, school districts, Fort Bliss, state and federal partners, have been meeting and preparing plans and procedures in case they should be needed,” Margo said. “We are going to be deliberate.”

Robert Resendes, El Paso’s public health director, later described the threat COVID-19 poses to people.

“One of the things we’re seeing with this disease is that people over 80 are the most susceptible to this virus, including fatalities,” he said. “It’s about a 15% to 16% for an 80-plus-year-old who gets infected.

“If you’re in your 70s, it’s half of that, or about 8%. If you’re in your 60s, it’s about half of that, or 4%. It keeps going down. Once you get under 50, it’s very rare that someone dies from it.”

For that reason, he said, elderly people need to be treated carefully.

Gov. Abbott directed state agencies to restrict visitation at nursing homes, state-sponsored living centers, hospitals and daycare centers. The recommendations carry limited exceptions for end-of-life visitations and require all individuals to go through the proper screenings.

In El Paso, The Legacy at Cimarron, one of the city’s newest assisted living and memory care homes has cancelled activities that involved the public and is limiting access to family members only and essential personnel.


Update March 8: Border businesses brace for coronavirus shock

The coronavirus epidemic – and efforts to contain it – is sending ripples through the borderland economy, raising fears among executives of business disruptions in one of the largest manufacturing centers on the border.

As the number of COVID-19 cases rose to 100,000 worldwide last week, borderland executives told El Paso Inc. their top concern was a protracted outbreak that would hobble supply chains, raise recession risks and ultimately hit the bottom line.

“My concern, and I haven’t seen a lot of it yet, is the impact if some of those factories (in China) start closing up, which would be a major problem for the supply chain and for people here or in Mexico still buying stuff in China,” said Matt Keats, president of Keats Southwest. 

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases makes up a tiny fraction of the entire population; there are now at least 250 confirmed in the U.S. But the virus could have big effects on the economy, from Wall Street to the borderland. 

The coronavirus has the potential to upend supply chains for manufacturers and businesses that rely on products and materials made in China, where entire cities have been quarantined and some factories shut down. 

Keats and other executives said that long-term their businesses could actually get a boost as more companies reconsider doing business in China and look to bring business to closer, more stable manufacturing centers. 

One of Keats Southwest’s customers, rattled by the disruptions in China and satisfied with the work the company has recently done for them, is now looking to shift more business out of China and to Keats in the U.S. and Mexico.

“They have quite a bit of work being done in China, and they are going to get that stuff out of there and are giving it to us,” Keats said.

Keats came to El Paso more than 25 years ago to establish a toehold on the border for the family company, which is based in Illinois and manufactures metal parts in the U.S. and Mexico.

The El Paso economy has been strong, with a historically low unemployment rate, solid housing market and some income gains. But “uncertainty abounds,” UTEP economists say in their most recent borderplex economic update released last week.

“If the COVID-19 outbreak causes supply chain problems, more manufacturing upheavals may ripple across the region during the first half of 2020,” the report states.

Exactly what impact the outbreak will have on the border economy is hard to predict.

“At present, it is too early to accurately estimate the economic effects of the coronavirus outbreak,” said UTEP economist Tom Fullerton. “Aside from potentially costly public health effects, the most obvious at-risk sectors are consumer electronics manufacturing, transportation equipment manufacturing, transportation, warehousing, hotels and travel.”

El Paso, as well as the rest of the country, is still at relatively low risk for COVID-19, and so far there have been no confirmed cases in the region. As of Friday, there were 17 cases in Texas. And the huge South by Southwest festival, which was scheduled to begin in Austin on March 13, was canceled.

Rigoberto Delgado, a health economist at UTEP, says if an outbreak were to occur in the borderland, the economic impact could be considerable.

“If something happens in El Paso, a hub of international trade and manufacturing, that will practically come to a standstill because people will not be wanting to come here for the purpose of disease control.” 

He added, “It could be a major economic situation.”

Jeff Olsen, business unit director of Larsen Manufacturing’s El Paso operation, said there is “an incredible amount of panic.”

“Customers are emailing, calling and wanting confirmations across the board that we can assure them that nothing will be impacted,” Olsen said.

The company diversified where it gets its raw materials after the China tariffs were enacted last year, reducing its reliance on China. So their supply chain has remained intact, and they have not had trouble getting materials so far, Olsen said.

He expects it could be as late as April or May before area companies begin to see a significant impact, because China is half a world away from North America and supplies are still in transit.

“What really hurts us is we have a joint partnership with a (metal) stamping company in China,” Olsen said. “That stamping company is in Wuhan — right smack dab in the middle of it.”

That factory is shut down, and there is nobody there for them even to call, he said. They work with that company to supply their customers in Asia. 

Alan Russell, chief executive of Tecma Group, said so far it is business as usual but tensions are high and he expects to see a slowdown. The company, which operates 70 plants in Mexico, has put together a contingency plan that includes educating their 10,000 employees about the virus.

“If we have a virus outbreak in one of our plants, if one employee is infected, we are going to close that plant,” Russell said.

Officials with the New Mexico & El Paso Export Assistance Center said they couldn’t comment on the economic impact of COVID-19 because it’s still a rapidly evolving situation, but added that the U.S. Department of Commerce had a large trade mission in Hong Kong in April that has been postponed.

The markets are also all over the place with news of the rapidly evolving coronavirus. 

Gary Borsch, CEO of Professional Investment Counsel in El Paso, said he expects market volatility to continue for a bit but eventually die down as the virus runs its course or gets under control. 

But in the meantime, we’re stuck with dealing with the fallout.

“In spite of those who say the U.S. is an industrial, economic power, we are not above needing cooperation and help from the rest of the world, in either markets to buy our products, or markets to assemble our products,” Borsch said. “When parts of the global economy get sick, we get affected proportionally.”

Borsch said he’s not encouraging his clients or other investors to sell off or be reactionary as the market swings up and down. 

Instead, he is encouraging clients to take notice of stocks that have fallen in price, saying it might be an opportune time for buying stocks that are trading at a lower price. 

“When you think about that four to six-month time period, that’s at least two business quarters for American companies,” Borsch said. “They have no idea what their businesses are going to generate on the earnings side.”

 
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