EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Wearing a homemade surgical mask, Julio Olivas cooks meat for takeout inside a tiny eatery on South El Paso Street.
His sales have dropped dramatically since the city passed a stay-at-home order for non-essential workers and required most businesses to close. Still, Olivas considers himself lucky because a portion of his business is still open and his employees have jobs.
“It’s hard but at the same time I think it’s the responsible thing to do to stop the spread of COVID-19,” he says.
The small shop called Sabroso is the exception to the rule nowadays in this ghost town called Downtown El Paso.
According to officials from the Central Business Association (CBA), 90% to 95% of the businesses in an area that stretches from the Paso del Norte port of entry into the United States to Interstate 10 are closed. Some may never reopen and it’s going to be a while before their workers find new jobs.
The coronavirus pandemic and the tough rules imposed by authorities to contain it blunted growing momentum to revitalize the city’s Downtown.
Old multistory buildings began to transform into urban apartment complexes and construction had begun on new hotels right off the freeway. Attendance had been steady at the city’s Triple-A baseball franchise, the Chihuahuas; San Jacinto Plaza with its iconic alligator statues got a major facelift four years ago; the El Paso Streetcar made its first run in November of 2018; and Juarez had just started its Walk of Lights to the border.
“This has affected everybody from restaurants to hotels to dollar stores — you name it. It’s been the perfect storm in an already difficult situation,” said George Salom, vice chair of the CBA.
He was referring to a string of events in the past year that stole the limelight from the economic gains and chipped away at a key demographic for continued Downtown prosperity: shoppers from Mexico.
First came the migrant surge at the end of 2018 that brought about threats from the White House about closing the border and imposing tariffs on Mexico. Later came the Aug. 3 mass shooting when a gunman came from North Texas to “kill Mexicans.” And early this year, the coronavirus pandemic struck the United States, eliciting business closures, stay-at-home orders and restrictions on non-essential international travel.
“We had the crisis at the border, political issues and this pandemic kind of brought this ultimate tsunami effect,” Salom said.
But there’s got to be light at the end of the tunnel and CBA members hang on to their vision of a thriving Downtown that will attract droves of international visitors.
“Once we come out of this, our vision is to be the prime open-air shopping mall for the region, a place where people from throughout the city can come and continue to shop and eat and enjoy entertainment, our safe streets, our architecture,” Salom said. “We want to get back to where we were going: to welcome people from all over.”
When that will be is still up in the air. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said communities can begin to allow partial business openings as of Friday. El Paso, however, just renewed its stay-at-home order through May 17. That is taxing the patience of some, like the organizers of an upcoming Sunday rally “to reopen Texas and El Paso” being promoted online.
However, Salom says merely allowing businesses to reopen is only a starting point.
“One of the most important components is having restrictions of travel at border lifted. For decades, we’ve all known the importance of the Mexican shopper to the economy of El Paso, specifically in Downtown. We need to make sure we welcome back the shopper from Juarez and the state of Chihuahua,” he said.
Current travel restrictions limit admission at ports of entry to returning U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents. The dozens of Downtown clothing and electronic retailers, dollar and shoe stores derived a good portion of their income from Mexican residents who came over on border crossing permits known as “laser visas.” Those have vanished due to the travel ban.
“The other component is working very closely with the authorities to make sure we have a safe operational reopening so that businesses operate in an environment that would mitigate or hold back a second wave (of COVID-19),” Salom said. “I think we are going to be living in a post COVID-19 world where certain things will change.”
So don’t be surprised — or offended — if merchants continue to limit the number of customers in their stores, leave the “X’s” on the floor marking safe social distance or seem to be sanitizing counters all the time.
“We are talking about social distancing and focusing on keeping a clean and sanitary environment. These are things that will affect our sales but are a middle ground that can help us balance keeping people healthy — both the customer and the employee — and the need to do business,” Salom said.
He’s also urging fellow business owners to keep good communication with all levels of government, which in the end want economic prosperity in their communities as well. He cited the “excellent job” that El Paso police have done during the pandemic in keeping the shuttered businesses free of vandalism and theft.
“We have a Downtown that offers a variety of experiences, whether is shopping for various products at very competitive prices to a variety of food and experiences. It’s not just the retail component, not just the food, we have beautiful weather, welcoming and friendly people and a wonderful Downtown that is a jewel of architecture in the Southwest,” Salom said.
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