EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated with news of a declaration of disaster by the City of South Padre Island.

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas (Border Report) — The popular Spring Break destination of South Padre Island is now off limits to large groups of crowds, and the South Texas county due west is banning all public gatherings of more than 50 people in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus

The City of South Padre Island on Monday evening declared a local state of disaster and banned gatherings over 50 people, something many locals had called for to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The city’s convention center is closed, but the beach and causeway remain open, as well as businesses and local restaurants, however city officials advise not congregating in large groups.

On Monday afternoon, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said that he would be signing a disaster declaration forbidding public gatherings of more than 50 people within the county for seven days. This will affect 22 municipalities in Hidalgo County including the largest city of McAllen.

Although there have been no reported cases of coronavirus in Hidalgo County, Cortez said he was taking the action proactively because not enough testing has been done. He added that he intends to ask Hidalgo County commissioners to extend the order an additional seven days, through March 31.

This has not been an easy decision. I recognize the hardships this declaration may have on many of our citizens. I make this decision for the greater good of the county.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez

“We decided to issue a disaster declaration due to the public health emergency,” Cortez said in a news conference held at the Hidalgo County Commissioner’s chambers in Edinburg, Texas. “This has not been an easy decision. I recognize the hardships this declaration may have on many of our citizens. I make this decision for the greater good of the county.”

Spring break youth play soccer on South Padre Island outside Clayton’s Beach Bar on Monday, March 15, 2020. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

When asked by Border Report if the South Texas border communities would be taking a united regional approach to combating the novel deadly virus that causes COVID-19, Cortez responded by announcing that he had spoken 20 minutes prior to Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr., and he said Treviño also plans to announce orders that will forbid large group from gathering, including shutting down group events at popular South Padre Island.

“My understanding is he’s going to have some similar declarations very soon and my understanding is South Padre Island, the beaches, will be closed,” Cortez said.

My understanding is South Padre Island, the beaches, will be closed.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez

Earlier on Monday, crowds of youth, many college students on Spring Break, were dancing on the beach, playing soccer and beach volleyball and drinking beer and eating fried shrimp on the popular Gulf Coast getaway. And while the crowds were noticeably smaller than in previous years, many young people interviewed said they do not fear the virus. Several said they were not concerned because the elderly and the infirmed are more susceptible.

“As of right now, I heard it’s not here in SPI or here in the Valley. So let’s see where it goes, where it takes us. I know it doesn’t affect us young but it affects the old people more,” said Joey Martinez, 18, of Brownsville, Texas, who was with three friends and planning on attending a concert held at Clayton’s Beach Bar, where thousands of youth usually congregate for Spring Break.

“We wash our hands,” said Taylor Catcher, 21, of Missouri State University in Joplin, Mo., who also was going to the concert with three girlfriends. “I think people can go where they want to go.”

An online petition was circulating asking South Padre Island officials to ban large gatherings, and specifically cited shutting down Spring Break concerts at Clayton’s, which boasts as being the “biggest beach bar in Texas.”

Above are photos taken by Border Report’s Sandra Sanchez on Monday at Clayton’s on South Padre Island:

“Residents in our community are at high risk, living in a low poverty area and/or living on welfare some with no medical insurance. Our population is at risk for diabetes (highest at #1 in the nation), heart disease and respiratory illnesses. As we’ve learned these are the riskiest factors for people at risk for Coronavirus,” the petition stated.

Lauren Milner, center, of Austin, Texas, with her children, Caitlyn and Jesse on South Padre Island on March 15, 2020. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Nearly 9,000 people had signed the petition by Monday evening, which had a goal of 10,000 signatures. 

However, security guards at Clayton’s told Border Report on Monday afternoon that a concert slated for 8 p.m. would go on as planned. Requests to interview Clayton’s owner, Clayton Brashear, were not responded to.

J.C. Low, of McAllen, was enjoying the beach with his family a few yards down the beach from the loud music of Clayton’s. He said the economic benefits of beach tourism are important to the region and should outweigh fears of the coronavirus. “I disagree. I think the beach and the island depends on tourism and I think it needs to continue,” he said.

Lauren Milner was in the water with her two children, Caitlyn and Jesse. The family is from Austin and had initially planned a Spring break vacation to Florida but canceled it due to fears of flying in close proximity to others in airplanes due to the coronavirus. Instead, they threw the gang into their car and drove seven hours “to enjoy a few days at the beach,” she said.

“I feel you’re at risk anywhere you are right now,” Milner said. “Right now, we’re just trying to relax and enuoy and not think about it too much right now.”

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