With governor’s OK, local South Texas leaders enact restrictions to stop spread of COVID-19

Texas

Laredo selected for human trials for COVID-19 vaccine testing

HARLINGEN, Texas (Border Report) — Just days after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said local authorities can do more to control rising coronavirus cases, two South Texas jurisdictions have enacted stricter restrictions.

On Wednesday afternoon, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez announced that an overnight curfew would be in effect for all residents, although the times will vary depending on age. Those ages 17 and younger may not leave their homes from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.; and unless they are performing essential services, adults must not be out from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. Cortez also banned public gatherings of more than 10 people.

Starting Thursday, the Laredo City Council has mandated that facial masks be worn inside all businesses, including gyms. Plus, those who attend bars, Bingo halls, or 8-liner facilities — also called maquinitas — must provide an address and phone number, and those businesses must submit this information to the health department weekly or face a $1,000 fine.

“We can’t allow this to continue. We have to take every precaution necessary,” Cortez said during a Facebook Live event in which he announced the new mandates for his county of 870,000 across from Reynosa, Mexico, where COVID-19 cases and deaths rise in record numbers daily.

Over the past two weeks, Hidalgo County has seen a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths, as well. On Wednesday, the county announced an additional 373 cases and four deaths — the single highest one-day total of cases and fatalities since the pandemic began.

Read a Border Report story on spiking cases in the Rio Grande Valley.

Cortez blamed the spiking numbers on public gatherings and night outings. “A lot of it has been attributable to young people,” and that is why he is enacting the curfew, he said.

“The power to stop this virus is within us. We have to continue to follow all the protocols and precautions to put an end to this,” Cortez said. “This is action we must take and I hope we will be receiving all the cooperation from all of our citizens.”

This is action we must take and I hope we will be receiving all the cooperation from all of our citizens.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz said that the number of cases in his city, located across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, dramatically increased when Abbott told local officials that they must heed the governor’s phased-in reopening plans for the state. And Saenz said he is glad to once again have more control of what is happening in his “unique” border city.

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz said Wednesday, June 24, 2020, that he is glad to enforce more local restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“We got to govern as we see fit and so we need that leeway, that freeway to exercise our powers,” Saenz said on a video conference call with media Wednesday. “Now we’re seeking more authority for enforcement. Keep in mind we had that authority and then the governor, through his power of office, took over more of the enforcement side and we ended up directly or indirectly with more cases because the teeth –the enforcement ability — was taken away.”

The orders do not apply to churches, Saenz said, and fines will likely not be issued until Friday to allow businesses and patrons some time to adjust to the new rules.

“The mayor and city council are doing the best they can,” Webb County Judge Tano Tijerina said Wednesday. “Right now it feels like it’s gotten away from us. Its’ very difficult as elected officials to have our hands handcuffed.”

COVID-19 cases in Laredo on Wednesday totaled 1,045 with 23 deaths. There are 446 active cases but one hospital is currently “at capacity” because of “a surge in admissions during the past 48 hours” and not enough healthcare workers, Laredo Health Authority Dr. Victor Treviño said.

Laredo Medical Center has asked state medical authorities to allow the hospital to increase its patient-to-healthcare worker ratio in order to treat critical cases, the Laredo Health authority told media on June 24, 2020. (Courtesy Photo)

The hospital, Laredo Medical Center, has had several physicians and nurses become ill with COVID-19 “and some of them did not return,” Treviño said.

The city has sent a letter to state medical authorities requesting the hospital be allowed to increase its patient-to-healthcare worker ratio in order to treat the current critical cases, Treviño said.

Treviño also said that the City of Laredo has been selected as a site for human trials of the coronavirus vaccine to take place. The six-month trials will be conducted by the company Moderna, and are to begin on Saturday. Laredo was chosen due to its high Hispanic population, and the fact that Hispanics tend to suffer worse effects from coronavirus, the physician who is overseeing the trials said.

“This is good news for our community because we will be part of the front lines of coming up with a potential vaccine against COVID-19,” Treviño said.

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

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