EL PASO, Texas -- In the five-months of the pandemic's existence, Covid-19 compliance teams in El Paso claim they have faced several hurdles to enforce the guidelines set by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Abbott issued his first coronavirus guidelines in March, and since then local governments have set up their own task forces for compliance efforts. In El Paso, officials have issued 94 citations and have done more than 15,000 code violation visits since the pandemic began.
"We started getting calls the first weekend that the governor issued his first order on March 15th. So the calls have been coming in ever since then -April, May, June and July. Almost 5 months of calls, so thousands and thousands of calls," said Ellen Smyth, the city administrator responsible for managing El Paso's task force.
While her compliance team is tasked with enforcing the rules, they run into dead ends often. Many times business owners will close their business doors while they violate these guidelines, or they refuse to sign the violation notices that are issued. While city compliance officers cannot issue citations, they can get the police department involved.
"If they don't open the door we walk away, because we're not going to get into banging on the door or forcing someone to open. If they don't open the first time they knock, they're not going to open, so we just turn that over to PD and it becomes more of a priority call," Smyth said.
A violation seen often is the lack of face mask enforcement at many businesses. Officials with the city say often times employees prefer not to confront an unruly customer over wearing a mask and get into a possible confrontation.
"The businesses where the customers are clearly walking around with no mask on and the employee is like 'I am not going up to him, I am not going to approach him.' So then, we need to talk to the manager and say you have to empower your employees and give them the tools that they need to approach the customer," Smyth explained.
Many of these violations continue to happen everyday and Smyth's team now faces a new challenge. Bars across the Borderland are now getting a food license to reopen their doors and resume their operations. While there is no issue with these now-restaurants serving food, the problem is what happens once the kitchen closes; some of these establishments revert back to a bar scene, creating a problem for the task force.
"We really didn't anticipate that happening. We are still working with the city attorney and, of course, their license is regulated by the state so there will some impact. I just don't know what authority (the Texas Alcoholic Bevarage Commission) has because it is not coming from them, it is coming from the governor," Smyth said.
These challenges are frustrating for the task force, however residents are still urged to dial the city's 311 line if they notice violations happening. City officials are now examining their options and say they will chose to become more strict with their enforcement.
"They can issue a citation on the spot rather than giving you a warning. It's kind of like issuing a citation for speeding - they can either give you a warning or a ticket on the spot. And so now they're not giving you any more warnings, they're just going to give you a ticket," Smyth said.