EXCLUSIVE: COVID-19 cases could prompt stricter travel restrictions, National Guard response, South Texas county judge says

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Federal and state leaders urge governor to issue statewide stay-at-home orders

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The number of COVID-19 cases in South Texas jumped dramatically in a week, prompting the Hidalgo County judge to consider implementing stricter travel restrictions — that he might or might not be able to do — to get traffic off area roads.

Meanwhile, two South Texas border congressmen on Tuesday put pressure on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to issue statewide mandatory shelter-in-place orders to lessen confusion by municipalities and set across-the-board standards that would reduce all travel within the state.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez told Border Report that he is disappointed with the number of cars and people he has seen on county roads since his mandatory countywide shelter-at-home order began on Friday morning. The orders require all non-essential workers to stay at home and all non-essential businesses, such as small businesses and retail stores, to shutter for the time being to try and stop the spread of the coronavirus within this community that borders Mexico.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez has implemented a county-wide shelter-in-place order. He is seen on March 23, 2020, in the county commission chambers in Edinburg, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez

“I am concerned because I see a lot of people on the roads. There are a lot of cars out there. And they shouldn’t be. We already know what stops transmission rates and we have a responsible plan but it requires compliance,” Cortez told Border Report on Saturday afternoon via virtual video chat.

On Tuesday afternoon, McAllen city officials said that traffic cameras last weekend found a 69% drop in traffic at two of the busiest intersections in the city.

Nevertheless, Cortez told Border Report he is considering what tougher travel restrictions he, as the county’s leader, can legally impose to keep all non-essential personnel off area roads and inside the confines of their homes away from others. But some federal and state officials have told Border Report that although there is a public health emergency order issued by a county, local government officials still are limited in what actions they can actually take.

“These are complicated issues involving interstate commerce,” Texas state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democrat from McAllen, told Border Report. “Some are pretty gray areas as we try to sort these issues out right now. But obviously you can only go so far.”

How far Cortez plans to go if Abbott doesn’t act remains to be seen.

Cortez told Border Report on Tuesday afternoon that his office was considering stricter actions, which could close local roads that lead into the county from neighboring counties, if necessary.

“We are determining additional community controls to stop travelers and people from coming into the county,” Cortez said. “It appears a lot of infections are travel-related. There are a lot of people coming in cars, planes, boats and trucks into Hidalgo County.”

When asked if he was thinking of setting up a roadblock on the interstate between counties, for instance, he said he was considering all options but recognizes the challenges that would bring. “There are other jurisdictions that come into play. No. 1 let’s say I want to put in barriers to block everyone coming into Hidalgo County; coming in through the expressway; or even somewhere further, who is going to do the roadblocks and screen to make sure the medical people get through?” Cortez said. “It’s a humongous undertaking and even tho it sounds good on paper, to be able to actually do it would be tantamount to have something like the National Guard would have to come help.”

When asked if he has asked the National Guard to assist in Hidalgo County, Cortez responded: “I’m not going to answer that question, but all options that are available I’m considering.”

It appears a lot of infections are travel-related. There are a lot of people coming in cars, planes, boats and trucks into Hidalgo County.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez

It is part of a three-pronged response plan that the county is undertaking to slow transmission of the virus. The other two plans they are pursuing include access to more coronavirus testing kits, and ensuring there are enough hospital beds and equipment to treat the sick, he said.

On Monday, the number of COVID-19 cases in Hidalgo County spiked to 38, up from just two cases a week earlier. Nearly 400 people of the county’s 1 million residents have been tested and 88 cases were still pending Tuesday.

Cameron County, the border county to the east, on Tuesday reported a total of 26 cases of COVID-19. Starr County, to the west, had five confirmed cases. And Webb County, three hours to the west and home to the city of Laredo, reported 37 cases and two deaths from coronavirus.

Cortez took to social media on Twitter and in a video posted to the county’s website imploring residents to stay indoors and stay away from each other.

“Tell everybody. Put peer pressure on your friends who are violating these rules. The surge is about to come and the more people who are out there the higher the probability that we’re going to have more and more people (infected),” Cortez said in a video posted to YouTube.

In interviews with local, state and federal leaders, Border Report has learned that a municipality cannot close down interstates, such as Interstate 2, which connects the Rio Grande Valley from Hidalgo to Cameron counties. Nor can local officials shut down any thoroughfares that allow residents to seek medical help or necessary facilities, like grocery stores. City officials can close city roads, and county officials can shut down county roads, but major thoroughfares must remain open. International bridges and ports of entry are run by federal officials and the FAA controls airport closures.

“I don’t know under the commerce clause if a county judge can do that. I don’t think that’s ever been done before,” U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat from McAllen, told Border Report regarding a county leader closing major roadways or international ports.

“We need to be careful to see how we can monitor and manage the situation in a way that people can get the resources that are necessary but in a very controlled way that keeps us safe and keeps the spreading of the virus at a minimum,” Gonzalez said via video chat on Monday afternoon.

Since the pandemic began, Abbott and President Donald Trump have repeatedly promised that the nation’s supply chain would not be affected or jeopardized.

But on Sunday, as the state’s death toll from COVID-19 neared 40, Abbott issued stricter travel restrictions for those entering the state. Abbott mandated a 14-day self-quarantine for anyone driving into Texas from anywhere in Louisiana and for those flying in from Miami, Atlanta, Detroit and Chicago, as well as anywhere in California or Washington.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas.

On Tuesday, both Gonzalez and U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat who lives in Brownsville, Texas, called on Abbott to issue statewide mandatory stay-at-home orders to lessen confusion and set across-the-board standards. That would also encourage all residents to stay in their homes.

“As one of the largest states in the nation, we must act decisively and quickly to protect our fellow Texans and Americans,” Vela said.  “Governor Abbot has the authority to implement this order statewide, which could help prevent the spread of this devastating virus and save lives.”

Said Gonzalez: “I requested from our governor that he had a stay-at-home order for the entire state and that he quarantine the entire state and I think that’s still a good idea.”

I requested from our governor that he had a stay-at-home order for the entire state and that he quarantine the entire state and I think that’s still a good idea.”

U.S. Rep .Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas

Hinojosa, who has served in the Texas Legislature for 33 years on and off since 1981 and is vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he believes Cortez is just venting some steam and frustration but warned he would face real legal threats if he actually tried to implement any travel restrictions that would affect the supply chain or commerce.

Texas Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-20, is seen in his Edinburg office on July 22, 2019. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“They’re just thinking out loud quite frankly. This is unchartered territory for all of us,” Hinojosa said Monday via phone. “You have all these issues as local, state and federal governments try to coordinate and move forward and feel their way in trying to control the coronavirus. Sometimes people overreach. Maybe they’re just thinking out loud what they can and cannot do.”

Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, says she recognizes the limits and frustrations that local officials in South Texas are facing right now. She has been helping to lead talks between Starr County Judge Eloy Vera and the mayors of the four towns in her rural county of just 61,000 people. Luckily, she said, their efforts are helping to keep the virus count down there and she said residents are mostly complying with a shelter-in-place order.

Rose Benavidez is president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation. She is seen in her office in Rio Grande City. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“For the most part now we are seeing people respond in a way that tells us that these activities are having an impact on people realizing the severity of the situation and the importance of them staying home and working from home and even of the need for the business community to modify its business to provide services they need but more importantly keep families and themselves safe,” Benavidez said Tuesday.

Her small county luckily secured thousands of test kits that were paid by an anonymous donor and they began offering drive-thru testing at the South Texas College campus in Rio Grande City — the first drive-thru tests offered south of San Antonio, the county’s Facebook page boasts. Benavidez serves as a board trustee for the college and she said as of Tuesday morning they had tested 254 people, including six people who tested positive from Hidalgo County and one from Webb County.

Benavidez added that her county is offering to do more for the South Texas region and has extended to partner with Hidalgo County officials to help test more of their residents. They have already reached an agreement to test indigents from Hidalgo County, she said.

“We’ve been trying to work with the Health Department in Hidalgo County,” Benavidez said. “We’re testing quite a number of people in Starr County.”

Of course, that would require residents travel from Hidalgo County to Starr County unimpeded.

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