Should you travel to El Paso? Las Cruces residents weigh risks amid COVID-19 spike

Veronica Martinez
Las Cruces Sun-News

LAS CRUCES – Ivan Corrales drives five days a week from Las Cruces to Downtown El Paso to go to work. He's been doing the 50-mile daily commute since 2013. But nowadays, he's traveling to a city with a COVID-19 outbreak. 

"The only thing I feel is like you have to take more precautious about it," Corrales said. "Not that I'm not worried but I have all my personal protection equipment that the city gave us."

Corrales is among a number of residents in each city who commute between the two for work or school or to access medical and other essential services.

But New Mexico Human Services Secretary David Scrase didn't mince words Thursday during a news conference when talking about travel to the big city on the Texas-New Mexico border.

"This is not a good time for anyone to go to El Paso for any reason," he said, further advising residents to "to stay in your COVID bubble and keep it as small as possible."

New Mexico and El Paso County are seeing spikes in cases of the SARS CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.

Thursday, New Mexico announced 1,082 new cases in the state, including 248 in Doña Ana County — both daily records.

Meanwhile, the city of El Paso reported 4,815 new COVID-19 cases from Monday to Thursday. The city's is reporting 14,359 active cases with 934 patients currently hospitalized and 245 in ICU, totals that dwarf the state of New Mexico.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego announced Thursday an order to shutdown nonessential services for two weeks. Last Sunday, the city announced a 10 p.m. curfew of two weeks.

Drive-thru coronavirus testing was set up in Las Cruces at the Doña Ana County Health Services Center, scheduled from on Friday, March 20, 2020, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. or until supplies ran out. After closing at around 11:15 a.m. a line of cars waiting were signaled to move on.

Essential services include polling sites, schools that provide meal services, children facilities, grocery stores, funeral services, all healthcare facilities and offices, pharmacies, government operations, post offices and retail-to-go services.

Essential travel to El Paso

Las Cruces resident Michelle Hernandez travels to Las Palmas Medical Center in El Paso every few weeks. She has chronic kidney disease and needs to get a series of medical tests in order to qualify to be put on a kidney transplant waitlist.

Though Hernandez said she's closer to getting on the transplant list after a nearly year-long process, she's thinking twice about traveling to El Paso, especially to a hospital and with her health issues.

More:New Mexico senator decries lack of COVID-19 testing sites near El Paso

"Yes, we're worried, but we wear a mask, we wear gloves we try to be as cautious as possible," Hernandez said about going to her doctor's appointments at Las Palmas with her husband. "We just go in and out and we come right back home as soon as the appointment is over."

Hernandez's appointments were halted in March at the start of the nationwide outbreak, but resumed in early October. As cases and hospitalizations keep rising in El Paso, Hernandez worries non-COVID-19 treatments will be suspended again.

"It is kind of stressful to keep going (to the hospital), but I have to do it," Hernandez said. "I just want to rush to try to get all these tests done before everything closes again in El Paso."

Another option for Hernandez is to travel 223 miles to Albuquerque which would add expenses to her treatment. 

Commuting for work and school

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Oct. 13 the extension of public health orders including the requirement for individuals arriving from high-risk states to quarantine for two weeks. This order, however, exempts people employed by an essential business and students attending school in New Mexico.

Corrales used to go to El Paso every weekend with his family in addition to his workdays. For the 35-year-old New Mexican and his family, going to El Paso was a way to get a "big city fix," do some shopping and go out to eat. But the family trips stopped in March.

Still, Corrales hasn't stopped worked as a building inspector for the City of El Paso, considered an essential job. He works at a building downtown and goes on site for inspections. But after work, he said he heads straight home to Las Cruces, avoiding other businesses in the Texas city. 

He worries about possibly spreading the virus to his family.

"I can say I feel a little concerned because I do see a lot of people on a daily basis," Corrales said. "All I can do is take my precautions."

Martha Garcia, a nursing student, used to travel to El Paso every week to attend classes at Western Technical College.

She started attending in-person classes at he beginning of October, but soon all her classes switched to online. Still, Garcia and her classmates have to go to campus to take quizzes and tests.

More:Doña Ana County is leading New Mexico in a statewide shortage of registered nurses

"I don't mind the commute, but because of the virus it's scary to go," Garcia said.

Two weeks ago, her class was notified of a COVID-19 case among the students and Garcia was surprised students were still required to attend classes if they didn't show any symptoms.

"My main concern was that after they sent us the message that we were exposed, why were they keep telling us to go in and not self quarantine," Garcia asked.

"My understanding is that if you're exposed by somebody that tested positive you need to self-quarantine for 14 days."

One week later students were notified of another case on campus and Garcia thought it was getting out of control. As a caregiver for patients with disabilities, she thinks about the risk of spreading the virus to her clients.

The 45-year-old student added precautions to her routine when going to El Paso. She started carrying disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer with her all the time and bought an N-95 mask.

"The other option I would have is to drop out of school and and start at another time maybe," Garcia said.

Veronica Martinez is a trending and immigration reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News. She can be reached at or @vamartinez10 on Twitter.

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