EL PASO, Texas -- El Paso City Council voted 5-4 Tuesday, with Mayor Dee Margo breaking ties, to continue withholding information on the specific locations of Covid-19 clusters and to reject a plan for additional city virus testing sites.
That means identities of businesses, nursing homes and other locations where significant outbreaks of the virus have occurred in the city won't be made public. It also means the city won't be opening any more testing sites despite long wait times reported at current locations, the majority of which are managed by a contractor hired by the state.
The mayor maintained the city is already doing thousands of tests a day and doesn't have the staff or needed supplies to do more; he's also maintained there could be privacy violations by releasing the names of specific clusters. The city defines a cluster as two or more confirmed cases of an infection.
Voting yes to release the names of cluster spots and to add test sites were city representatives Peter Svarzbein, Cassandra Hernandez, Alexsandra Annello, Henry Rivera. Voting no on both measures were representatives Sam Morgan, Cissy Lizarraga, Isabel Salcedo, Claudia Lizette Rodriguez along with Mayor Margo.
The vote on cluster data came after an hour-long executive session with the city attorney.
The public doesn't know what was said in the executive session, but El Paso Matters CEO Bob Moore said several council members had said they were told it was illegal to release such information. He did not reveal the names of the council members or how many expressed that concern.
However, letters that the city attorney's office has sent to the state attorney general in recent months say differently. Those letters were in response to separate open records requests made by ABC-7 and by El Paso Matters for specific locations of coronavirus clusters.
In the letters, Asst. City Attorney Roberta Brito acknowledges that the law does allow them to release such information, but it doesn't require them to do so.
In other words, "the City of El Paso could release the information, but it chooses not to do so," said Moore.
Brito's argument to the attorney general's office is that even if the city decided to release the information, it has determined "the information cannot be released in a manner that unequivocally prevents identification of any persons as required" by state law.
"There's an important distinction between can't and won't," said Moore, who added that it's clear the city can release the specific information on cluster locations.
At least one other city in Texas, San Antonio, has released the names of nursing homes battling outbreaks.
"But the city of El Paso chooses not to do so. If it is a policy choice, the city should articulate the reasons for not being transparent. I didn't hear those reasons today," Moore said.