As the number of cases of COVID-19 in El Paso continues to decline and the number of people vaccinated increases, the city and county are preparing to get employees back to work in person.
El Paso County is preparing to bring 50% of its workforce back to in-person services as it enters the second phase of its reopening plan. El Paso Health Authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza told the Commissioners Court that it is the right opportunity to continue to slowly expand staffing based on the current trends.
“I see a trend that is extremely favorable,” Ocaranza said on June 14.
County officials did not give an exact date for when the employees will return, but authorized the process to begin.
Gov. Greg Abbott lifted all Texas COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates, in March. In June Abbott tweeted that “Texas is open 100% without any restrictions or limitations or requirements.” Many private sector employers in El Paso have not yet brought back all employees for in-person work.
More than 60% of the population in El Paso age 12 and older is fully vaccinated and more than 70% have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to recent data provided by the county. Cases of COVID-19 have also significantly dropped since the community saw its surge in the fall when the caseload peaked at more than 13,500 active cases. As of Monday there were 280 active cases.
The county entered the first phase of the reconstitution plan in May, which brought back 25% percent of its workforce.
The County Commissioners Court’s decision to enter Phase Two comes 15 months after the COVID-19 pandemic triggered the activation of the “continuity of operations plan” in March 2020. The plan was adopted in 2015 and allows the county to provide essential functions at alternate sites within 12 hours after an event and to sustain them for a period of up to 30 days.
Phase Two criteria includes a requirement that 50% of the population be immunized. It also calls for the committee to make assessments to ensure safety protocols, such as social distancing, are in place before a department requires its employees to work in person. The county will still have some employees working remotely throughout the process, officials said.
Nicholette Ruiz, senior policy advisor for County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, said the main questions people ask is what services and buildings are open to the public.
“Every department is very different so we really encourage the public to call the department, whether it’s the county clerk’s or district clerk’s offices before coming to the (county) courthouse or any county building,” Ruiz said.
When the community has reached 75% immunization, the county will enter its third phase of reopening, according to county officials. During this phase the public will be able to enter county facilities without an appointment, but will still be encouraged to conduct business remotely.
Some City Council representatives said they have been advised by staff that more city employees will also return to work in person when the community has reached the 75% vaccination rate, but they said they have not received a schedule or detailed plan from city administration.
City administration did not respond to El Paso Matters interview requests for this story.
City Manager Tommy Gonzalez said during a council work session Monday that it is likely more city employees will be working in person in mid to late August, depending on the vaccination rate. Gonzalez also said some city employees have already been working in person in recent weeks.
The city started reopening quality-of-life facilities, including libraries, in March. In recent weeks more facilities, including pools and aquatic parks, have opened. On Friday the city said senior centers will be open once a week starting July 6.
Northeast city Rep. Joe Molinar said he recommends that employees and in-person City Council meetings return in September.
City Council meetings have been held virtually since last March when Gov. Greg Abbott issued an emergency order that suspended rules for the Texas Open Meetings Act. The emergency order, which is still in place, allows for meetings to be held by video or teleconference.
“(If) we do it — we as community leaders — we should expect the employees to be doing it too,” Molinar said. He added that city staff would have three months to prepare and make arrangements for child care, school and transportation. “September is going to coincide with the budget and coincide with employees coming back.”
East-Central city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez said while there hasn’t been a set timeline for ending remote work, she anticipates it may happen before the end of the year.
“I would foresee it to be by the end of the summer or at the beginning of fall. I would be surprised if it (remote working) would continue longer than that,” she said.
For more information:
Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.