(CN) — A group of restaurants in the Texas border city of El Paso sued county officials on Friday after being ordered to close their doors to in-person dining because of a surge in coronavirus cases in the region.
The lawsuit comes just a day after El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego – the county’s top executive, not a judicial officer – issued a two-week “stay at home” order that shut down or scaled back many nonessential businesses. Under the order, restaurants are barred from allowing customers inside but can still serve food for delivery or for curbside pickup.
In Friday’s complaint, the restaurants and service industry-related companies claim the county judge overstepped his authority by restricting local businesses beyond the limits outlined in Governor Greg Abbott’s latest statewide order, which reopened bars and let most businesses expand their capacity to 75%.
The El Paso lawsuit asks a state district court to throw out the new local restrictions and to block the county from enforcing them.
“We may have different opinions about the best course of action to be taken during the Covid-19 pandemic, and we may not agree with the actions or lack of actions taken by those in authority over us,” the complaint states. “That, however, does not give any of us, including the county judge, the right to take the law into his own hands.”
The lawsuit goes on to cite the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the suspension of habeas corpus rights during the Civil War as examples of times in the nation’s history that showed the “error” of the government seeking to “ignore its own laws out of a sense of necessity.”
A dramatic surge in virus cases in El Paso has overwhelmed the region’s hospitals in recent days, leading to some patients being airlifted to other hospitals and an influx of state and federal medical resources. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said this week it was deploying about 95 medical workers trained in disaster response and critical care to the region to help ease the strain on local hospitals.
Still, the shutdown order quickly escalated into a political and power-struggle feud at both the local and state levels.
Ken Paxton, the state’s Republican attorney general, quickly blasted the order as a “direct violation” of the governor’s rules and later echoed that point in a letter to the city’s mayor. On Friday evening, he announced he would join the lawsuit.
El Paso Mayor Dee Margo has pushed back against the new restrictions, claiming he was never consulted about the judge’s move. The city’s police department has said it will not enforce the restrictions, according to the El Paso Times.
“I reached out to him to call me, and for whatever reason, he did not,” Margo said during a Friday afternoon news conference.
The mayor outlined his view that the city could “control the spike” in virus cases through personal actions like hand washing, wearing a mask, social distancing and staying home when possible.
“I do not believe we will control the spread by shutting down our economy for any length of time,” he said.
Despite the pushback, Samaniego has remained firm that his order is valid and that any businesses that violate it could be penalized. In a statement, the judge said he would share a “legal opinion” later on Friday that “sets forth the legal basis” for his authority to issue the order.
“Only a court can decide if my order is invalid and I firmly believe that a court will not do so,” he said.
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