Lawmaker pushes for ‘enhanced screenings’ to ease travel restrictions, bolster border trade

Coronavirus

Hidalgo County still has 2nd highest COVID fatality rate in state

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The downtown section of McAllen is usually packed with Mexican nationals. Most of the store signs are in Spanish and even the street vendors cater to Mexican tastes.

But food trucks now are gone and for months the streets have been void of shoppers because travel restrictions that remain in place at the border due to the COVID-19 crisis. Shop owners have had to let go of employees, and some said they are now much more hands-on with the cleaning and maintenance of their facilities, and even have taken to operating the cash registers.

Several business owners in McAllen on Friday told Border Report they were suffering due to decreased sales.

“Business has been slow as far as the Mexican traffic goes but then we have a lot of local clients who come from the neighboring cities so we’re fortunate we’re still doing business, and yes, it’s not to the levels that we used to have but we’re still surviving and making sales and covering some expenses and keeping the store open,” said Suresh Mansinghani, president of the store El Rey De Los Perfumes (The Perfume King).

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents this region, says October through December is typically when Mexican nationals cross the border and spend the most money in the United States, but he is worried that travel restrictions will squash economic growth and he is calling for the borders to be reopened to more travelers.

On Friday, Cuellar held a news conference in downtown Laredo on a street corner that is usually bustling with packed shops and mom-and-pop businesses. But he said many are now closed and those that are open have very few customers. He said he doesn’t see that changing unless the Department of Homeland Security and the Trump administration ease up restrictions and allow non-essential travelers to cross the border soon.

“Look around at the businesses that read ‘for rent,’ ‘for rent’ and without the Mexican shoppers it is very very hard for them to stay in business. Some have gone under already,” Cuellar said.

“For rent” signs are seen frequently in downtown McAllen, Texas, where shops used to be bustling. At right a lone shopper on Friday peruses aisles in a store that is normally packed. (Border Report Photos/Sandra Sanchez)

Cuellar, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said he presented a proposal to Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan that would require enhanced medical screening for all border travelers but would allow non-essential workers to cross if they are healthy.

He has proposed hiring private contractors to do the screening at land ports and to begin with a pilot project at a few border crossings.

Those with signs or symptoms consistent with COVID-19 would be diverted to a testing area and have masks provided. Travelers going beyond the immediate border area would be asked for contact information for local health authorities. This includes border crossing holders in possession of a valid I-94 permit who plan to visit the U.S. for more than 30 days.

He did not give a price tag on what this would cost, but said the U.S. government has already purchased 150 million rapid COVID tests that he said could be used by CBP officers at land ports of entry to medically screen travelers. The tests take 5 to 15 minutes to read and he says would be worth the wait and additional effort if it means it would help to boost border economies.

“I gave him the proposal. I’m waiting for them to get back. There’s a lot of ways we can work this out. A lot of ways we can fund this but the question is is there a will,” Cuellar said in response to a question from Border Report. “This would help the health of the border communities because the CBP officers would be tested and the travelers as well.”

A CBP official told Border Report that the travel restrictions, in place until at least Sept. 21, are “in order to reduce the risk of further spread of COVID-19 in the United States,” and they have “adjusted operations at select ports of entry on the Southwest border to assist with the reduction of the movement of non-essential travelers.”

Since travel restrictions were first implemented on March 20 due to the pandemic, $360 billion has been lost that normally would be spent in the United States by travelers crossing the southern and northern borders, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

That’s about $2.8 billion per day, and Cuellar said this is especially hurting Southwest border communities. Mexican nationals spend $19 billion per year in the United States, most in border towns, he said. But since the travel restrictions were put in place, border traffic at Laredo ports of entry have dropped 65% and local sales tax revenues are way down.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced state sales tax revenue totaled $2.82 billion in August, which is down 5.6 percent from August 2019

“These restrictions are devastating to our economy and every aspect of these restrictions will continue to have a negative impact on our economy. We’re all essential. The border residents need to voice our support that we’re all essential, not only to Laredo, but to Texas and to the United States,” said Gerry Schwebel, executive vice president of IBC Bank.

Each month since March, the Trump administration has extended the travel restrictions to allow only essential workers or those who come for medical reasons to cross. Last month, in order to further tighten travel and land ports of entry, CBP began increased verbal screening of travelers to determine whether they were legitimately crossing the border, and that increased border wait times by hours at land ports from Texas to California.

But increased travel restrictions have not been placed on airports or seaports, and that’s put an unfair burden on border communities, Cuellar said.

“The reason we’re here is to say that the administration will be making a decision very soon, in the next week or two, they’ll make a decision. Their plan starting in March has been to extend restrictions for 30 days, extend 30 days for non-essential travel, and in my opinion that’s no plan,” Cuellar said.

The CBP official said the restrictions are necessary during this pandemic and they have no intention of allowing non-essential travelers to cross prior to Sept. 21.

“Non-essential travelers should expect more disruption to their travel, including increased wait times and the potential for secondary inspection,” the CBP officer said. “We need people to think twice about non-essential travel and to ask themselves if the travel is worth risking their lives and the lives of others. Mexico continues to experience spikes in positive COVID-19 cases along the Southwest border and it is our duty to do everything we can to protect our nation, including educating citizens and even discouraging non-essential travel to Mexico.

We need people to think twice about non-essential travel and to ask themselves if the travel is worth risking their lives and the lives of others.”

CBP official

Mansinghani, the Perfume King, said he has not had to let any staffers go, but he worries what upcoming holiday sales will be like, starting with Sept. 16, Diez y Seis de Septiembre, on Wednesday, which is Mexican Independence Day when he says “we’re usually packed with customers because it’s a holiday in Mexico and they usually come over here to spend.”

Suresh Mansinghani, president of the store El Rey De Los Perfumes (The Perfume King) is seen in his shop in downtown McAllen, Texas, on Sept. 11, 2020. He has not had to lay off any workers due to COVID lackluster sales but worries what holiday spending will be like if Mexican national shoppers do not return. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

He added that the months of November and December “accounts for nearly 50% of our year’s business.” But nevertheless he doesn’t want the borders to open up prematurely if that means a health risk to the community.

“I’d like to lessen the restrictions but then I’m concerned about the COVID-people who have COVID but don’t know they have COVID and then come over here,” he said.

Hidalgo County has been one of the hardest hit with coronavirus infections in Texas and in the nation. Currently, the county ranks second-highest in the state just below Houston for the number of COVID-related deaths, with 1,355 as of Thursday. There have been over 29,200 cases in this county of just 860,000 residents, county officials said.

El Paso County, on the state’s western border, has the seventh-most fatalities due to coronavirus with 466 deaths since the pandemic began.

Infection rates shot up in South Texas when Gov. Greg Abbott in early May loosened stay-at-home orders and allowed businesses and bars and gyms to open up at a time when the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, just across the Rio Grande, was seeing a tremendous spike in cases.

Shelter-in-place restrictions remain in effect in Hidalgo County, as well as an overnight curfew until Sept. 13. But nowadays, local roadways are packed with cars and most residents have returned to their jobs and go out daily for work or errands.

“We have to do our part and stay home unless we absolutely need to leave for an essential activity. The safety and well-being of you and your loved ones is of the utmost importance,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez urged Thursday.

Cuellar said the high rate of traffic on South Texas roads shows that residents are out and about and infection rates are no longer increasing and he said as long as social distancing is maintained and medical checks done — like temperature scans and rapid COVID tests — then he advocates for the borders to be opened back up to all.

“I want to make sure we keep the health of the individual but also keep the health of the economy,” Cuellar said.

Laredo businessman Miguel Inclan, owner of La Sabrosita Paleteria and Snacks, said only three of his nine area businesses currently are open.

Schwebel said that as a banker, he recognizes how intertwined Laredo is with its sister city Nuevo Laredo across the Rio Grande.

“We control our destiny. We need to work together. All these ideas are welcome,” Schwebel said. “Every citizen here, not only from Laredo, but from both sides of the border. We are one city and two countries. We pride ourselves as Los Dos Laredos, we like to say.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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