MISSION, TEXAS (Border Report) — Tuesday’s announcement by Homeland Security Acting Commissioner Chad Wolf that restrictions will remain on the Southwest border with Mexico through July, was met with cautious and mixed optimism by South Texas leaders.

Those elected officials say COVID-19 cases are at an all-time high and they fear for the economic stability of their communities, as well as the health of border residents.

Cases began spiking two weeks ago, following the Memorial Day weekend, and have been rising daily in South Texas. This has been causing concern among public health officials that there soon won’t be enough hospital beds to treat all of the sick patients.

The rising numbers come as the state is aggressively reopening under orders from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

On Tuesday, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez in a Facebook Live event reported there were 143 new cases, and two more deaths, bringing the total deaths to 17 and total cases to 1,255. That figure is nearly double the most cases ever experienced on a single day since the pandemic began, and it came a day after the county incurred three deaths — it’s highest one-day death total.

“I think there is some confusion as to who is in charge. The governor of the State of Texas on May 1 said he was going to take over management of this virus,” Cortez said. “So basically since that time we have been basically taking our marching orders from the governor.”

Neighboring Cameron County has had 1,178 cases and 44 deaths.

The numbers reflect the region’s proximity to Mexico, which several leaders said they believe has vastly under-reported the number of cases in that country. On Monday, health officials in the northern state of Tamaulipas reported there were 14 deaths and 145 new cases.

“It’s in the hands of the people of Hidalgo County. If they say ‘no más,’ ‘no más,’ and they take control then we’ll start to see the numbers going down,” Cortez said. “We are in a war and we have lots of soldiers. Each one of you is a soldier in this war. And we have equipped you with the necessary tools and the necessary infrastructure to protect yourself as much as you can from this virus. We told you to shelter-at-home and not travel unless it is absolutely necessary.”

On Tuesday, Abbott recommended that Texans stay home, which he says is especially true for those with an underlying health condition or who are 65 and older. He also again urged wearing facial masks while out in public because asymptomatic people can spread the coronavirus.

But his comments came as he is aggressively reopening the state in phases, something South Texas leaders say is not advised for this region of the state since it is so close to Mexico.

“Of course we wished he had waited,” Cortez said, adding that prior to the reopening, Hidalgo County was seeing single-digit cases per day, and some days with no cases.

South Texas city implements curfew

The City of Mission, in Hidalgo County, has gone from one or two cases per day to over a dozen, its mayor said. And that has led city leaders to try and take matters into their own hands.

Starting at midnight Wednesday, the Mission City Council is implementing an overnight curfew for the city’s 85,000 residents until 5 a.m. The curfew will be in place for two weeks and is occurring despite Abbott’s statewide reopening orders. And although the orders cannot carry fines, the mayor and city council say they hope it will send a message to residents of the extreme danger they are putting themselves and family members in if they leave their homes.

We wanted to take other actions but were not allowed by the state of Texas.”

Mission, Texas, Mayor Armando O’Caña
Mission, Texas, Mayor Armando O’Caña (Courtesy Photo)

Mission Mayor Armando O’Caña said he had wanted to implement a mandatory face mask order but was not allowed because Abbott’s orders supersede his authority.

However his city’s council did vote on the curfew — albeit it cannot be legally enforced — as well as ordered all of the city’s 700 employees to be tested every 12 hours for COVID-19. He is sending out a “strike force” to talk with businesses on the best way to keep patrons and employees safe.

“Mission in the last four days has been experiencing a spike in COVID-19,” O’Caña said. “We’re saying that is from opening Texas. It’s very obvious. … We took those actions again based on the philosophy of the health and safety of our residents in Mission. We wanted to take other actions but were not allowed by the state of Texas.”

The mayor of the nearby Pharr, which suffered three deaths on Monday, told Border Report that he is proud of Mission’s actions. He added that he wants to institute a mandatory face mask policy, despite the governor’s orders.

Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez, who is also a pediatric surgeon, said current measures are not enough to stop the spread of COVID-19, and said he “applauds Dr. O’Cana for taking a proactive measure showing true leadership for his population and for the Rio Grande Valley.”

Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez, mayor of the City of Pharr, Texas, speaks from his City Hall offices on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. Hernandez also is a pediatric surgeon. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“Now we’re just using a hammer to take care of it, to mitigate,” Hernandez said. “Because we don’t have the full capacity to test everybody as needed.”

Hernandez agreed with the extension of the border restrictions, saying he is concerned that our hospitals could become overwhelmed with patients from other countries if the Department of Homeland Security had not implemented those safeguards.

Hernandez said, as a border mayor, he is regularly briefed by Homeland Security, which explained why restrictions are in place and that has to do with a high rate of infections currently in Brazil, and those from southern countries migrating north for better medical care.

“Mexico is under reporting by three to five times and when you look at that and the infrastructure among the Rio Grande Valley, meaning doctors nurses, hospitals and ICU beds and if we have to take care of our population here and then uncontrolled infections coming across, because they’re going to seek help, you’re going to totally overwhelm the system and that could be devastating,” Hernandez said.

Border region depends upon Mexican shoppers

Border leaders say that while the economies of Dallas and Austin will benefit from reopening restaurants, shops and other retail outlets, South Texas is a separate region with such close proximity to Mexico that makes it vulnerable to the deadly virus. After three months with reduced revenue and income from Mexican tourists, these communities are financially hurting from the lack of Mexican shoppers who are not allowed to come across.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas (Courtesy Photo)

“I understand we got to find the balance between the health of the individual and the health of the economy,” U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents South Texas including the City of Mission, said. “But there are some businesses that depend on the Mexican shopper that are on the brink of financial disaster so we need to find that balance.”

Cuellar said it is wrong to only blame Mexico for the increase in coronavirus cases along the border, especially since Mexicans have not been allowed to cross into the United States for tourism or shopping since restrictions were first imposed on March 20. He stressed that local citizens must do their part to help contain the spread of the virus.

“There are some people in the Trump Administration that feel that the infections are coming in from Mexico. Again, we can’t blame Mexico for everything,” Cuellar said. “There’s a lot of businesses that depend on Mexican shoppers, hotels and retail, and that’s the balance we’re trying to find out.”

Cuellar, the only Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee from the Southwest border, said that during a normal year, 18 million Mexicans cross for tourism and shopping, spending $19 billion in Texas.

Mission City Councilwoman Jessica Ortega-Ochoa (Courtesy Photo)

But this year has been anything but normal.

Mission City Councilwoman Jessica Ortega-Ochoa said the new overnight curfew is an effort to impress upon residents the perilous situation the region is facing with so many COVID-19 cases right now.

“We do see the numbers on the rise and want to be able to do the best for all our residents with safety in mind,” Ortega-Ochoa said. “We didn’t want to prevent small businesses. We do care and ultimately that’s the message we wanted to send out for everybody to be safe and to be smart out there.”

Texas Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democrat who represents South Texas and has been appointed to a gubernatorial committee to oversee federal CARES Act relief funds, said he does not trust the reports coming out of Mexico, and he fears for the health of South Texans.

“Reports we have seen show that Mexico is not putting out correct numbers as to the number of infections. The numbers they are putting out, the real numbers are five times than what they’re telling us, just from information that we get from different sources in Mexico,” Hinojosa said.

He said Mexico has at least 8,000 nurses and doctors who are infected with COVID-19 and he “most hospitals now are at 100% capacity.”

Hinojosa’s skepticism comes as reports also are surfacing by leaders in El Paso and Southern California about the lack of reporting by Mexican officials, especially in northern Mexican states, like Baja California.

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