Eddie Olivarez the Health and Human Services director, and Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez address the media Monday, March 16, 2020, during a news conference where they issued a seven-day disaster declaration beginning Tuesday morning as the county braces for the “inevitable” positive COVID-19 case. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com )

For the first time in its 81-year history, the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show will end the festivities early, officially closing its doors to the public at 12 a.m. Tuesday after Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez announced the county would be issuing a seven-day disaster declaration Tuesday.

The declaration effectively prohibits gatherings of 50 or more people in an attempt to mitigate the potential spread of the coronavirus.

The stock show is one of many Valley institutions likely to be affected by the declaration, which applies to everything except for school, institutes of higher education and businesses, which “are exempt unless you’re in the business of mass gatherings,” says county public affairs director Carlos Sanchez.

“In conferring with city leaders in Hidalgo County, we have reached a consensus that this is a necessary step to mitigate what we believe is inevitable: that someone in Hidalgo County will test positive for the COVID-19,” Cortez said at a news conference Monday. “This has not been an easy decision. I recognize the hardships this declaration may have on many of our citizens.”

According to Cortez, there were still no cases of COVID-19 in the county as of Monday afternoon. County Health and Human Services CEO Eddie Olivarez said 15 to 20 tests have been sent from the county, although he’s unsure about the number of tests sent by private physicians.

“That’s really not a lot of people,” Cortez said.

The judge called the ban on large gatherings a “prudent” move on the county’s part.

“This is a virus that spreads very quickly, so we want to make sure that we are as prepared as possible to curtail any spreading of this. We believe this is the most prudent action to take to make sure that we don’t overwhelm our public health institutions with too many people,” he said.

Cortez said he expects municipalities in the county to issue similar declarations in their respective cities and that the county has also been working with Valley schools.

“We have been in constant contact over the last several weeks to local educational institutions, and they have been amenable to our recommendations to follow the CDC guidelines,” he said.

Cortez said he’ll be asking commissioners court to extend the declaration until March 31 and encouraged residents to avoid large crowds and unnecessary social contact.

“That is the best way to prevent this. Just stay away and have social separation,” he said.

After Cortez announced the declaration, the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show Board of Directors met and determined how best to comply with the declaration.

They agreed to comply and to shut down the show to the public at midnight, ending it for showers and judges on Wednesday.

Secretaries at the show began fielding calls from people asking whether the show was still on.

“Just for tonight,” the secretaries said Monday.

Word quickly began spreading from stall to stall.

“Did you hear?” showers told one another.

Stock show Board President Mike Risica said the board expected to receive an official letter from the county Tuesday morning.

“We’ve agreed with them on how we’ll evacuate. Bottom line is, as of tonight at midnight, we’re closing the carnival, everything. So tonight is the last night for the public. Starting Tuesday, they’ve allowed us to show the market animals, so we’re going to show all our goats and lambs, poultry and rabbits, and then we’re going to have our steers and hogs on Wednesday. It’ll be through on Wednesday,” he said.

“Ski” an OPB light hog from Robert Vela High School in Edinburg takes a nap at the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show in Mercedes on Monday, March 16, 2020. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

Risica said that some showers in the breeding cattle category will not show and that the amount of people on grounds Tuesday and Wednesday will be minimal.

“They helped us with an extra day on Wednesday,” he said. “We’ll bring as few as people as possible.”

Risica said he regrets seeing the show close early, but supported the county’s decision on public health grounds.

“We totally agree. They’re the officials that make the decisions, and that’s their rules and we will abide by them,” he said.

According to Risica, ticket holders will not be eligible for refunds and showers will not be able to show their animals online.

“At this point we weren’t prepared for that and it’s just too short of a notice,” he said.

Risica said the cancellation will be the first in the show’s 81-year history.

“All we can do is regroup and get ready for next year, but it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s a tough deal.”