EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with COVID-19 cases for Hidalgo County.
McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The South Texas border city of Laredo has ordered all residents to wear some sort of face mask or face cover in public buildings and while pumping gas starting Thursday.
The new restrictions come at a time when the city deals with a spike in cases, which now stands at 53 cases, and three deaths linked to COVID-19 — the most in South Texas.
During an emergency meeting on Tuesday night, the Laredo City Council voted to require that face masks that cover the nose and mouth be worn when entering a public building, pumping gas, riding in public transportation or a Lyft vehicle. The order was revised from a previous proposal that would have required masks to be worn by everyone everywhere outside the confines of their homes.
Those not in compliance face a fine of up to $1,000.
“We’re asking the public to cover their mouths and noses while going to and inside spaces where you have other people,” Laredo City Manager Robert Eads told media during a noon video conference call. He stressed that this can be done with a scarf or a bandanna, and he urged residents not to try and buy medical-grade face masks, which are in short supply and needed by doctors and nurses nationwide.
“There is no legal requirement to go out and buy masks. We are requiring you cover yourself with a scarf or bandanna or with a mask if you have it, great. We’re begging you to not search out and seek N95 masks from our medical community. Those should be reserved only for them,” Eads said.
The video conference call was held due to much public confusion over the new rules. Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz said he expects the rules to be published this afternoon and should give clearer directives.
“We’re trying to carve out some common-sense approaches,” Saenz said. “Some people feel that we’re infringing on their liberty, but yet safety and lives are first and foremost. So please bear with us. It’s just a very unprecedented times, as I’ve said before, but we’ll get through this and I ask for your patience and cooperation.”
Please bear with us. It’s just a very unprecedented times, as I’ve said before, but we’ll get thru this and I ask for your patience and cooperation.”Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz
The city is also teaming up with Laredo College to create a video to show residents the acceptable forms of masks, Laredo College Senior Director of Strategic and External Initiatives Michael Gonzalez told Border Report.
“From the college’s perspective, we’re excited to partner with them to get that message out,” Gonzalez said. “We know something like that might be confusing to folks and we want to help get that message out to help them understand what the requirements are in this forthcoming ordinance.”
The city has been under shelter-in-place orders since Saturday and the new restrictions are the strictest yet enacted in South Texas. All South Texas border counties — from Webb to Willacy — now have shelter-in-place orders. But Webb County, where Laredo is located, has the most cases of COVID-19 and the only deaths, so far.
There have been 53 cases of COVID-19 and three deaths in Webb County health officials said Thursday. The latest death was of an 88-year-old woman with underlying health issues.
Webb County, with fewer than 300,000 residents, currently has an infection rate of about 15%, which is higher than the national average and other South Texas border communities.
Hidalgo County, which has 1 million residents, announced it had 16 more cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing its total to 62. Two of the county’s newest cases included babies ages 8-months-old and 10-months-old. Rural Starr County, west of Hidalgo County, has five cases and no deaths. Cameron County on the Gulf Coast reports 26 cases of coronavirus.
On Tuesday evening, county commissioners from the much smaller county of Zapata County, issued a mandatory shelter-in-place rule, which took effect today through April 14.
Laredo Police Chief Claudio Treviño Jr., said that reports of checkpoints being put up by officers Thursday to ensure that only essential workers are on the roads were false. He said his force is currently questioning residents who are out and about but there are no roadblocks in place
“We don’t have checkpoints at this time,” Treviño said on the video call. “If it seems there is a need for that we will announce with our legal team and management.”
On Tuesday, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez told Border Report that he was considering stricter travel restrictions to get more people off area roads, and might even enlist help from the National Guard.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.