EL PASO, Texas -- Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed restaurants to ignore local curfews — specifically in El Paso and Travis counties — that were implemented to mitigate the spread of the Covid-19 virus on New Year's Eve.
The governor's action brought a swift rebuke from El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego who, in an interview with ABC-7, called Abbott's effort to subvert local orders "random," "very irresponsible" and "nonsensical."
"To Texas restaurants. A formal statement. 'The Governor’s statewide executive order allows food establishments to be open for in-person dining on New Years Eve as authorized by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. They should remain open. Happy New Year!' Cheers!" Abbott wrote on Twitter at 7:39 p.m., just within a few hours before the El Paso-area and Austin-area restaurant restrictions were set to go into effect for the night.
However, an El Paso police supervisor told ABC-7 that officers still planned to enforce the local restrictions unless otherwise directed by Mayor Dee Margo, who couldn't be reached for comment.
Meantime, Samaniego told ABC-7 that he was expecting to be served Thursday night with a lawsuit from the state, even though Samaniego said he instituted the El Paso restrictions after what he described as a “favorable” discussion with Abbott’s office and a representative from the Texas Attorney General’s office.
El Paso first instituted restrictions on dine-in hours back in mid-October with Margo announcing the governor's support during a news conference.
“We’ve been in constant contact with the governor, and he knows exactly what we have implemented. We’re fine,” Margo said at the time.
That same day, Abbott himself was asked about El Paso's restrictions and offered his support.
"Local officials do have levels of flexibility to make sure they are able to contain the spread of Covid-19, and it appears that is exactly what Mayor Margo is doing," Abbott said on Oct. 15.
The state of Texas to date had not publicly objected to the El Paso order limiting restaurant hours, which has now been in effect for weeks - although the mandated closing time was recently extended from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Word of Thursday night's potential legal action against El Paso came a short time after a Travis County District judge upheld Austin’s restrictions limiting when restaurants and bars could serve customers during New Year's weekend, after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Austin and Travis County to stop the measure in a suit similar to the one expected to be brought against El Paso County.
"The Court finds the State has not demonstrated a probable right to the relief sought nor imminent and irreparable harm," said Amy Clark Meachum, presiding judge of the 201st District Court.
Paxton's office was quick to appeal that ruling to the Austin-based Third Court of Appeals, which had taken no action late Thursday night.
Travis County is restricting dine-in food and beverage service from 10:30 p.m. to 6 a.m., while El Paso's runs from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. Both measures do allow restaurants to offer drive-thru, curbside pick-up, take out, or delivery services after dine-in closing time.
Restaurants are currently allowed to operate with occupancy limitations indoors throughout Texas, and more than 2,500 bars and nightclubs have reopened by converting to restaurants, offering food and committing that alcohol sales are less than half of their revenue.
The team of lawyers representing the state argued in the Austin court that the local orders contradict the state's emergency orders issued by Abbott, which established the rules for operation of businesses and occupancy restrictions.
But attorneys for the city of Austin and Travis County argued that their order is within the limits established by Abbott because it does not stop businesses from operating — it only restricts the way they provide service.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned Americans to avoid crowds and indoor spaces and recommended that people stay at home for New Year's Eve or celebrate virtually.
Samaniego said he hoped El Pasoans would heed the CDC's advice and ignore the governor's tweet telling them to congregate and drink.
"I don't want to go down that road again," Samaniego told ABC-7 on New Year's Eve. "I don't want to be walking alongside trailers (with bodies)," he said, referencing the 1,467 El Pasoans confirmed to have died from Covid-19 in 2020 and the 543 other deaths from the year that are currently under investigation as suspected virus fatalities.