Border residents express misgivings on eve of Texas reopening for business

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El Pasoans fear many won't observe social distancing; CBP reminds area residents that international travel restrictions are still in place

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Two days before Texas allows non-essential businesses to reopen, some Downtown El Paso merchants resumed operations.

Gov. Greg Abbott said most businesses can reopen at 25% capacity and observing social distancing rules. He said the rules could be relaxed further absent a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Border Report documented at least a half-dozen cellphone and clothing stores that had remained closed for nearly a month engage in sales on Wednesday afternoon in Downtown El Paso. Some stores taped cardboard signs stating no more than 10 persons were allowed at a time and encouraging the use of facemasks. Others did not.

“We’re an essential business,” said the manager of an independent cellphone store on South El Paso Street. The man, who didn’t identify himself, said his neighbor also ran an essential business because she sold hand sanitizer in addition to clothes. Some stores allowed customers in, others set up tables at the entrance and catered to customers from a distance.

Stores in Downtown El Paso that remained closed last week have reopened ahead of the phased-in economic return to business Gov. Greg Abbott announced this week. (photo by Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

City officials said the Department of Homeland Security considers communications businesses as essential, while clothing stores can operate only as retail-to-go.

Fire Department Lt. Robert Jones said businesses are encouraged to observe the city’s restrictions until Friday and those that jump the gun would be asked to close and may be subject to a citation. Each situation will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

of Tuesday night, El Paso had recorded 857 COVID-19 cases and 14 deaths, which still worries a lot of people.

“I, as well as many others, are concerned that our El Paso is not at a point to open up in a safe or responsible manner as per the White House’s own guidelines for opening up America again,” tweeted City Council Representative District 1 Peter Svarzbein.

He’s calling for a special City Council meeting on how state requirements will affect the way El Paso handles its COVID-19 emergency.

Several other border residents expressed misgivings.

“I am a little frightened having a lot of people back on the streets,” said Nora Valencia. “It would be OK if everyone were to follow (social distancing) recommendations, both the stores and the people. But, from what I’ve seen, I don’t think (they will). I hope this wasn’t a bad decision.”

“We have to watch out for that poison,” said a man wearing a Lift bus driver badge. “If stores open a lot of people are going to be out on the streets. […] I think (the infections) are going to go up.”

Said Andrea Betancourt: “I feel like as long as we all do our part, it’s going to be a lot faster. That way we can see each other again and go back to work because a lot of people are losing their jobs.”

Abbott’s decision also sent shivers through neighboring Juarez, Mexico, where the death toll continues to rise. Juarez has officially recorded 64 deaths and 259 cases so far, but even the city’s mayor says the number of cases is probably much higher due to limited testing.

“Just because they open the stores over there, it doesn’t mean we should go. We must stay on this side (Mexico),” said Dr. Arturo Valenzuela, head of the Chihuahua state Health Department in Juarez. “We went into the (pandemic) one month after (El Paso), so we cannot adopt the same attitude. If you go over there, you will add fuel to the fire we have here in Juarez.”

While Abbott lifts stay-at-home restrictions in Texas, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is keeping international travel restrictions in place all along the border.

The travel restrictions were implemented in March and extended for 30 days on April 20. Right now, only legal permanent residents and U.S. citizens can cross; all other non-essential travel (with a few exceptions) remain on pause, CBP said on Wednesday. That includes the “laser visa” crossers from Juarez who used to shop by the thousands in Downtown El Paso prior to the pandemic.

“If you go to El Paso, forget about flattening the (COVID-19 curve),” Valenzuela said. “We appeal to people’s good conscience, don’t go to El Paso unless it’s a matter of life and death.”

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