Editor’s note: This piece was written in partnership with the Columbia Journalism Review and the Delacorte Review, the literary nonfiction journal of the Columbia Journalism School. The project focuses on the stories and conversations going on in communities leading up to the November election.
In mid-March, the United States went on lockdown due to the emergence of thousands of coronavirus cases in major cities on the East and West coasts, while thousands of miles away in South Texas, border residents anxiously waited and prayed that the virus would not make an appearance in their communities.
On March 21, the first case was reported in Hidalgo County, Texas, followed by a second a day later. Since then the number of cases have slowly trickled in for this border county, where McAllen, its largest city, sits across the Rio Grande from Reynosa, Mexico. However the situation did not compare to what was happening in New York City, San Francisco and Seattle, where healthcare workers and hospitals were quickly overwhelmed by the novel and deadly virus.
But there were few mandates and directives from the governor’s mansion in Austin. Fearing for his constituents, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez issued a disaster declaration on March 17 and ordered no gatherings of over fifty people. Two days later he said no groups over ten. On March 26, Cortez ordered all “non-essential” workers in the county of 860,000 residents to shelter at home. He also ordered the closure of dine-in restaurants, bars, gyms, hair and nail salons, movie theaters, bowling alleys and other entertainment, saying: “I make this extraordinary move convinced that it is the right path for the safety of the residents of Hidalgo County. I know this will cause hardship but I am convinced this will save lives.”
Elsewhere throughout the state, the onus also appeared to be on local leaders to implement the orders that would safeguard their communities, absent any statewide directives from Republican governor Greg Abbott. Similar orders were issued by other South Texas county judges along the border from Webb County to Cameron County on the Gulf Coast.
As Abbott remained mum, local leaders took the heat, blamed for the economic losses that small businesses and communities would suffer during the shutdown. This was especially magnified in South Texas, where hospitals remained on the ready, but had few cases to treat. Sign up for CJR’s daily email
On April 2, Abbott issued stay-at-home orders for non-essential workers and urged social distancing, but he did not limit the number of people who could gather. He told the state’s twenty-nine million residents to “minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household … and work from home, if possible.” He also said “people shall avoid” restaurants, bars, hair salons, tattoo parlors. But he did not actually close any businesses or order facial masks to be worn in public.
After a flurry of hoarding that left grocery store shelves bare, residents hunkered down in their homes, resisted the urge to gather with extended Hispanic families, as is traditional in South Texas Hispanic culture, and spent the better part of their days communicating on social media and scouring websites for home-delivered groceries, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper.
On April 7, the first death in Hidalgo County occurred––that of a seventy-six–year-old man from Alamo, Texas, “with underlying health conditions,” and who had been hospitalized for “several weeks,” the county reported. But even then, the total number of patients being treated for COVID-19 in all of Hidalgo County was just 123.
Across the Rio Grande in Reynosa, Mexico, similar preparations and precautions were not being taken; testing kits were not being procured by Mexican health authorities, and social distancing and masks were not discussed or commonplace.
The Trump administration shut down the southwest border with Mexico to travel on March 20, but still allowed the back and forth crossing of essential workers from Mexico, including those employed at factories, known as maquiladoras, which we would later discover were hotbeds for infections and helped spread the virus.
Days passed and South Texans watched and read harrowing tales of uncontrolled hotspots and families decimated by the loss of loved ones elsewhere in the country. And yet the virus appeared to stay relatively contained here on the border. On some days, no new COVID-19 cases were reported at all.
In the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which has two hundred miles of shared border with South Texas, the number of cases were rapidly increasing. By mid-April, South Texas leaders were openly warning that Mexico was expected to hit its peak during the first or second week of May. Although the borders were closed to travel, hundreds were still crossing the international bridges daily and leaders knew the potential for viral spread was imminent. Warnings were told daily through the media and South Texans showed a resolve to fight the virus.
But on April 17, Gov. Abbott suddenly announced that his administration would begin a phased-in reopening of Texas over the next few weeks, and he made it clear that his orders superseded any issued by local leaders. Heeding Abbott’s guidance, Cortez and other county judges began easing restrictions. Over the next few weeks the South Texas region fell into step with Abbott’s orders, allowing businesses to reopen, restaurants to welcome back diners, and even movie theaters to start showing films. South Texans emerged from their homes in dangerous numbers. They went grocery shopping, hung out at malls, flooded beaches on Memorial Day weekend. Fewer and fewer wore masks in public.
However, just a few miles south of the border, maquiladoras were shut down due to infections; pregnant women were forbidden from leaving their homes and vehicles were limited to no more than two passengers. The Tamaulipas Ministry of Health went from single-digit daily cases to over 100 per day; sometimes 150 per day, with many daily deaths reported in the border cities of Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo. Since it has been reported that Mexico lacks testing capabilities, border leaders routinely warned they thought the infection rate was actually much higher in Mexico. Texas state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democrat from South Texas who sits on a committee appointed by Abbott to oversee coronavirus CARES Act relief funds, told me in an interview that the number of cases in Mexico are believed to be “five-times higher” than what the government has said, based on information he has received from sources in Mexico.
This month, the number of coronavirus cases began to skyrocket in Hidalgo County. On June 4, there were forty-five new cases––a one-day record. On June 11, there were seventy new cases. On Monday, there were 193 new cases, bringing the total to one thousand and eight hundred and eighty-two with twenty-three deaths from COVID-19.
Out of desperation, Cortez reached out to Abbott last week, taking a cue from Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff in San Antonio. They both pleaded with the governor to be allowed to implement mandatory face mask rules in their counties. To everyone’s surprise, Abbott responded by saying that he had never forbidden them from ordering face masks to be worn in businesses. He even told a Waco TV station this had been his “plan in place all along.” “Local governments can require stores and businesses to require masks. That’s what was authorized in the plan,” Abbott said.
That prompted Texas Monthly to run a story headlined: “Greg Abbott Invites You to Figure Out What His Coronavirus Executive Orders Allow: A month and a half after telling local officials they couldn’t mandate masks, the Texas governor congratulated a local official on realizing that, actually, they could.”
Cortez issued a mandatory mask order for all businesses that took effect on Friday, June 19. But the fear is it’s too little, too late. The virus is now widespread in the community. On June 12, the New York Times named McAllen as a coronavirus hotspot.
So, will a thin homemade cotton mask or bandana––most commonly worn here––do anything to stop the deadly virus? It is hard to know, especially with so many mixed messages from Austin that appear to give no consideration to this border region three hundred miles from the state capitol but just a thin river away from another country where the pandemic is overtaking entire communities.