In broken English, she explained she was scared of catching “the virus,” as she called covid-19, the deadly fast-spreading disease that has upended the lives of tens of millions of Americans across the nation with no end in sight.
Like many businesses that have scrambled to find ways of staying open in this rapidly changing environment, she had come up with an alternative.
“Cards?” she asked, referring to tarot, a fortune that could be told from a comfortable distance.
In El Paso, there have been nine confirmed cases of coronavirus, and local officials warn many more are likely to come. On Friday, city officials sent emergency alerts to all cellphones in the area asking recipients to, among other things, “wash their hands often” and “stay six feet apart.”
“Stay home as much as you can,” another alert read.
In recent days, much of this border city has gone on lockdown — with many businesses closed and most restaurants limited to takeout only. But some establishments stubbornly remained open, including the city’s famed L&J Café and Chuy’s, the Texas-based Tex Mex chain where employees had moved tables six feet apart to accommodate a handful of diners on Friday evening. It was allowed under a rule passed by the El Paso City Council that cut restaurant occupancy by half and enacted tough sanitary rules in exchange for letting dining rooms stay open.
“I’m thankful,” a Chuys employee said. “If we close, we all lose our jobs.”
But some wonder about longer disruptions to a way of life in El Paso that already has been marked by tensions over President Trump’s immigration policy. On Saturday, new restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus went into effect barring nonessential travel over the U.S.-Mexico border, a move that is likely to have huge cultural and economic implications in El Paso and its sister city Ciudad Juárez.
Thousands of people — both Americans and Mexicans — cross back and forth between the cities daily for work and play, including to visit family members. On Friday afternoon, the usually packed streets leading to the Stanton Street border bridge were almost empty, with many businesses already closed.
A few miles away, a Walmart was packed, its parking lot full of cars with Chihuahua, Mexico, license plates, as shoppers from across the border stocked up on supplies to last them for undetermined amounts of time.
At one point, employees wheeled out a cart of what has become holy grail items during this sweeping pandemic: yellow plastic containers of Clorox wipes and bright pink cans of Lysol disinfectant spray.
Shoppers froze, as if they weren’t quite sure what they were seeing was real or a mirage. They quietly lined up, as if determined not to create a commotion, as two store employees unwrapped the products and handed them over.
Each person could receive one of each. As a woman took her allotted share, she smiled gratefully. “Gracias,” she said.