EL PASO, Texas — The state's 34th District Court indicated it planned to rule by Friday morning on a request by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and several El Paso restaurant owners seeking a temporrary injunction to block a county order shutting down all non-essential activities and businesses.
The court heard oral arguments on the issue Wednesday morning for about 90 minutes. (You can watch those arguments in the video player at the bottom of this article.) 34th District Judge William Moody heard the case, but said several other judges were also listening in to the virtual hearing and would help advise him on reaching a decision.
The injunction request stems from a lawsuit filed in the wake of County Judge Ricardo Samaniego recently ordering the two-week shutdown amid a skyrocketing number of Covid-19 cases that he said were “overwhelming” the county’s medical resources.
In-person dining was among the non-essential activities Samaniego's order targeted. The order also closed bars, gyms, tattoo parlors and nail and hair salons, and directed residents to shelter in place except for essential tasks. Grocery and drug stores, funeral homes, health care services and government activities were among activities deemed essential, as were all election-related activities.
According to the lawsuit filed in the case, the county order violates Gov. Greg Abbott's emergency orders that reopened those targeted activities. Paxton maintains that Abbott's most recent order “explicitly preempts all contradictory local orders,” rendering the county judge's order “invalid and unenforceable.”
In issuing the order, Samaniego had said, “Our hospitals are at capacity, our medical professionals are overwhelmed, and if we don’t respond we will see unprecedented levels of death.” Samaniego, the county's top elected official, assured that county officials had "done everything possible” to avoid shutting down the county's economy.
“We need to build capacity for hospitals, build capacity, to shore up contact tracing and identify hot spots,” he said at the time.
The situation had only gotten worse as of Wednesday, with City-County Health Authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza acknowledging that "hospitals are near the breaking point" as the number of Covid-19 patients occupying beds exceeded 1,000. There were also a record 3,100 new additional cases announced Wednesday as active infections reached an all-time high of 21,902.
Health officials have blamed the spike on younger people going out to congregate, family gatherings and multiple generations living in the same household. They've also repeatedly cited stores and restaurants as the key locations of community spread, which Samaniego has noted in his defense of a shutdown.