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‘People let their guards down:’ El Paso mayor on coronavirus case spike

El Paso, Texas Mayor Dee Margo joins Yahoo Finance’s Zack Guzman to discuss measures to combat the coronavirus as the city set new records with more than 900 virus hospitalizations and over 200 in the ICU.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: New coronavirus cases continue their rise across the country, and the latest spike is repeating heartbreaking scenes that we saw play out here in New York City in terms of unprecedented demand and strain on local hospital staff. And that's exactly the scene playing out right now in Texas's sixth largest city of El Paso. Over there, hospitals are overflowing. The state is resorting to setting up makeshift overflow hospital beds at the city's convention center as the positivity rate in the county surged 160% over the last three weeks and hospitalizations more than quadrupled over the same time period.

So for more on what's playing out there and what led to the worst current outbreak in the country, we're joined by the mayor of El Paso. Mayor Dee Margo joins us now. Mayor Margo, I appreciate you taking the time to chat. I know you've got a lot to handle.

But I just want to start with the timeline in terms of how we got here, because I have family in El Paso, and they've kept me up-to-date, but many of our viewers might not have been keeping pace with the updates there. So just want to show the coronavirus test positivity rate in El Paso and where it was. At 6.6% on September 21, that was back when Governor Abbott let businesses increase their capacity from 50% to 75%.

After that, El Paso's positivity rate jumped to 13% on October 15. That was when you and the city took the step to go back to 50% occupancy limits for restaurants and other businesses. But that didn't seem to prove to be enough there, because the positivity rate jumped to 16% this past Sunday when El Paso also instituted a countrywide-- or-- sorry-- a county-wide curfew from 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM.

And we've seen the positivity rate continue to grow there. So what are you attributing the rise in cases to? Is it opening back up too soon? Or people not wearing masks? And what are your next steps to get this under control?

DEE MARGO: Well, to follow on what you said, the cumulative positivity rate, the seven-day positivity rate this morning is 17.24%. We announced 1,128 new positives this morning. We increased-- hospitalizations have gone up 26 to 934, and ICU has gone up 22 to 245.

We think the majority of all of this is first of all, community spread, and secondarily from COVID fatigue, pandemic fatigue, or however you articulate it and convey it. We think people let their guards down. They stopped wearing masks.

As you know, we're a multigenerational city with-- with people living together. And have-- we have-- you know, we're the largest US city on the Mexican border, so there is commerce, and culture, and family on both sides of the border. While the border is restricted to non-essential travel, if you are a US citizen you can still go back and forth, and we-- we think that there may be close to 100,000 or more US citizens living in Juarez. So you've got that with the family situation.

But basically, we had a number of bars convert under Texas Alcoholic Beverage Control licenses to become restaurants, which means you had to have at least 51% of your sales coming from non-alcoholic sales, non-alcohol sales. And we think a bunch of them have been gaming the system. They brought in food trucks that are legal.

The governor's allowed that. But we think it's just fatigue and letting their guards down, and it will take-- while we've taken certain actions, it takes, according to my health department and our public health authority for this pandemic, it will take at least two weeks to look at this stuff. So--

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, well-- I wanted to ask you about that too, though, because you talk about coronavirus fatigue. And obviously, that raises questions as to who is-- who that falls on. Because when you look at kind of that order to reopen here that came from Governor Abbott, it was tied to the percent of hospital patients tied to COVID-19.

In the areas where that exceeded 15%, there were the expectations that you would rollback those reopening or capacity limits, which you saw. You still remain at 50% there though. And the question is why you would be using that metric, because it seems like a lagging indicator when we think about hospitalizations.

Obviously, test positivity rate seems like the leading indicator there. And people might point out that once you get to hospitalizations, you're too late to adjust occupancy limits. So where do you put the blame in terms of maybe that fatigue coming? Is it-- is it coming from the governor level, federal level, or your level right now?

DEE MARGO: I think it's personal behavior. I think it's just failure to adhere to wearing a mask, and maintaining the distancing, and the proper hygiene and washing your hands. But the governor set the order-- we have trauma-- we have multiple trauma service areas in Texas.

We are trauma service area one, which includes El Paso County, Hudspeth County, and Culberson County, several miles of that. I instituted my first order two weeks ago today when we hit 1,161, which is a new record at that time on a day-- this day two weeks ago. So what I was trying to do-- the governor had not-- in our trauma service area, we had not been seven consecutive days at over 15% hospital capacity for COVID patients.

ZACK GUZMAN: Mm-hmm.

DEE MARGO: We were-- we were hitting 18% in our-- in that, and we were, like, 28% in El Paso. So I instituted this, not realizing that we'd already had four consecutive days in excess of 15% in our trauma service area for hospitalizations, COVID hospitalizations. And then that following Sunday, a week ago this last Sunday, we received our notice, the county judge and I received notice, that we had-- we were noncompliance within our trauma service area, so everything would be reduced to 50% occupancy, which I had already done that preceding Thursday, and elective surgeries would be restricted. So those were the two primary things per the governor's order, as I said before.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah.

DEE MARGO: But we're just trying to see how we can get our hands around this. We don't know-- you're right. We have tents set up. The state has responded with plenty of PPE. We've got something like 800 medical professionals who've come in, et cetera.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah. I understand-- I understand the hospitals, the emphasis on trying to catch up to this, that-- you know, you can applaud what the state's been doing there in terms of opening these hospital beds up, but a lot of people would say that's not going to change unless you do more right now. As you're talking about that hospitalization percentage tied to COVID patients, it's at 44%, so far above that 15% threshold the state set up in terms of rolling this back.

But even at the city level right now, you broke the boat in terms of what city officials were trying to do there, even around strip clubs and closing those down. You said you'd keep them open at occupancy restraints. But what more can be done right now, because it seems things are not improving? So in terms of restrictions, why not close down strip clubs? Why not do more to stop the spread right now?

DEE MARGO: The question was what can we do legally given the state. And we had a council trying to shut them down using the fire marshal. And you cannot do that using the fire marshals. But my point was-- wasn't keeping strip clubs open or anything else was we can only use certain legal tools. We have an oath that we will hold-- uphold the Constitution of the United States and the laws of the state of Texas, and the laws do not allow that.

Our legal-- our city attorney explained what we could and couldn't do. But I've got three council members who, irrespective of what legal says or what our public health authority says, they consider themselves quasi-epidemiologists and legal eagles. So all we were doing was saying this is what we can do, and this is what we can't do. And it was pointless to have a vote having-- saying that you could go out there and get the fire marshals to shut people down for COVID-related issues. You can't do that. There are other areas--

ZACK GUZMAN: But I'm--

DEE MARGO: --and we brought in--

ZACK GUZMAN: I'm obviously not an elected official, so I-- I'm not-- I'm not going to tell you how to do your job. Obviously, there are legal ramifications for all this, and that's your-- your point of view there.

DEE MARGO: Zack--

ZACK GUZMAN: But when we talk about what the county judge, Judge Samaniego's talking about too, it sounds like he wants to go farther in talking to you about what other options remain on the table. So if that's not one, what else is, aside from, you know, just trying to tell people to wear more masks right now, what else are you looking at, perhaps in your discussions with Governor Abbott too, to maybe change the laws?

DEE MARGO: We went-- the judge and I went to the governor on Saturday night to try to work on this. We asked for a reduction to 25%. The governor's office said no, we want you-- we want to help you enforce what you've done already to see what it does in the way of these spikes. So on Monday of this week, three day-- three days ago, TABC, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Control, sent in 20 extra agents to go out, because we think some of these bars that have converted to restaurants were part of the problem, which is why I instituted the closures of their kitchens at 9:00 PM--

ZACK GUZMAN: Mm-hmm.

DEE MARGO: --and to see what we could do to help on the enforcement. Our police are-- are stretched to the full extent of their capacity. We have COVID issues with our police and fire department. We've got a number of areas we're trying to deal with. We will do whatever we need to do, given the orders that we must follow under the governor's auspices.

ZACK GUZMAN: Just one last follow on that too, Mayor, here when we talk about constraints right now in terms of funding. There has been one story that's been followed for quite some time in terms of a rally that was held there by President Trump in El Paso, still looking to recoup those funds, now more than half a million dollars in terms of the funds you're looking to claw back from the Trump campaign due to that rally. Does any of that spill over into you guys not being able to battle this in terms of funding for, as you said, police or any other city services there in the wake of the pandemic?

DEE MARGO: No. It has no bearing whatsoever.

ZACK GUZMAN: And that's still an outstanding total as far as--

DEE MARGO: I think that the city mishandled the documentation of the way we should have handled it, and we learned a lot. We're not used to having presidents come visit El Paso, and we learned a lot. The county was paid their $5,000 for the use of the Coliseum. They had a contract, and it was paid.

Now, you would hope, you know, moral suasion might take over and do what's right, et cetera, but we've been unable to collect. And we were told that even if we file suit, the chances of collection are slim with a lot of litigation costs involved. And I can't see us spending money if we're not going to have an outcome that's positive. So but we mishandled it, and we know now how to do it from a legal standpoint going forth.