EL PASO, Texas -- El Paso Mayor Dee Margo defended the city's decision Friday to refuse to enforce County Judge Ricardo Samaniego's shutdown order for non-essential business amid a massive Covid-19 outbreak in the community.
But the mayor faced a break within the city's own ranks, with three members of El Paso City Council calling on him to reverse course and support the judge.
At an afternoon news conference, Margo declared he was the mayor of all El Pasoans - not only virus victims, doctors and nurses, but also 32,000 unemployed people and thousands of others seeking to survive financially as a result of the pandemic's economic downturn.
"I don't believe we'll control this spread by shutting down our economy," Margo said as he reiterated his often articulated belief that "we can control this spike with our personal actions."
He again called on El Pasoans to follow requirements to wear face masks and socially distance when out in public, avoid gatherings and to stay home if you don't need to go out.
"We need to all do our part, what is right," the mayor said. By doing so, he said El Pasoans could show their support for healthcare workers who are dealing with hospital overflows of patients due to virus-related illnesses.
Margo maintained Samaniego and the county's legal team gave the city no advance notice of the business closure mandate that was announced Thursday at 5 p.m. by the judge. He said the city's legal department didn't receive an actual copy of the order until 8 p.m.
"We all need to work together," the mayor said, suggesting he was taken aback by the judge's order and, as a result, reached out to the Texas attorney general for his guidance on how to handle it. After receiving an advisory opinion that the order was "unenforceable" and invalid, the city's police department opted not to enforce the measure.
Samaniego has disputed the mayor's account of events. The judge said earlier Friday that he had texted the mayor while the county was in the process of drafting the closure order to alert him and allow him to be involved if he so chose.
In addition, Samaniego noted that his authority outranks the mayor under state law - and added that only a court, not the attorney general, can legally halt enforcement of his mandate. The judge signaled he was prepared for a court battle after being served with a lawsuit Friday that formally challenges the order.
In a letter to the community that was released while the mayor spoke, Mayor Pro Tem Peter Svarzbein along with city Reps. Alexsandra Annello and Cassandra Hernandez said "Mayor Margo should retract his statements and efforts to undermine Judge Samaniego's authority and efforts to slow the (virus') spread temporarily."
The council members cited Texas Government Code Chapter 418, which they said "clearly gives the county judge the power to declare a local disaster" in this instance. Their letter said what the mayor has done "is confuse El Pasoans and exacerbate a divide on an already emotional issue."
The mayor was joined at his news conference by representatives of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the El Paso Chamber, which said over 300 local businesses had closed amid the pandemic and added that many more wouldn't survive another shutdown. Margo was also joined by Health Authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza and Health Department Director Angela Mora, who echoed the mayor's message of the need for personal responsibility.
It was in somewhat contrast to the county judge's news conference a day prior, in which Samaniego was flanked by the CEOs of University Medical Center and other hospitals who spoke of the crisis being faced by healthcare providers. The judge was also joined by Congresswoman Veronica Escobar and Texas State Sen. Cesar Blanco, who sounded similar sentiments about local hospitals being overwhelmed.
Margo's entire news conference can be viewed in the video player below.