It’s safe to say that things are getting a little strange out there.
The coronavirus has affected virtually every corner of the globe, and officials locally have described its arrival in the Rio Grande Valley as a matter of when rather than if.
On Monday, Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez announced he would be signing a seven-day disaster declaration prohibiting gatherings of 50 or more people. The declaration is expected to be extended through the end of March and will touch virtually every aspect of life in the Valley, and already made its presence felt with the immediate closure of the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show in Mercedes — a proud institution that had been running 81 years strong.
The declaration applies to everything except for schools, institutes of higher education and businesses, which “are exempt unless you’re in the business of mass gatherings,” county public affairs director Carlos Sanchez said.
Although most private businesses haven’t been directly told to cease operations, they have been strongly encouraged to voluntarily abide by the gathering limitation, leaving them with an incredibly difficult decision: close or alter operations significantly, or continue operating despite the health recommendation.
Sergio Contreras, RGV Partnership president, says he’s not sure what the extent of the economic impact of COVID-19 in the Valley will be. He notes businesses he’s spoken to are justifiably concerned.
“The uncertainty, the challenge is what is the mood,” he said.
Contreras said everyone is encouraged to follow the guidelines set out by health officials while finding ways to continue commerce. Many businesses are adapting.
“Some of our businesses I’ve heard from are going to streamline the process that they have within their building’s facilities, allowing them to work from home… they’re identifying means to still conduct the transactions that are needed to keep us moving forward,” he said. “In regards to some of our restaurant partners I’ve heard from, they’re eliminating, actually closing the larger social events. (They) are now taking orders in advance for pickup, so they’re having to adjust.”
Many Valley businesses seem to be taking those steps. As of Tuesday evening, The Monitor has compiled a running list of over 30 locally owned businesses that now offer curbside pick-up options, a list that’s bound to grow. That list is available at themonitor.com.
“We know that we’re going through a hardship, we’re going through a challenge at this point in time, and we encourage everyone to follow what is being recommended. Social distancing, hygiene,” Contreras said. “We are going to overcome this as a region, as a community.”
CANADIANS HEAD NORTH
There’s a sign outside Val Verde RV Park in Donna: “Jams Canceled,” the sign reads.
“In accordance with the Hidalgo County mandate of no gatherings of over 50 people, all remaining jams for the season at Val Verde RV Park in Donna are now canceled,” a post on the park’s Facebook page said. “Be safe. Wash your hands. Use common sense.”
Val Verde’s sign is one of dozens across the Valley issuing similar proclamations. In response to the pandemic, RV parks are cancelling performances, limiting the size of crowds and watching as their Canadian residents scramble to pack their bags and head north.
The Canadian government’s issued a directive that all Canadians that are abroad should return to Canada as soon as they can, and then when we get back to Canada, it’s a little uncertain. We could face the two-week quarantine or self-isolation or self-monitoring, one of the three,” said Doug Scoville, a Nova Scotian who’s been traveling to the Valley for the past 15 years. “It’s pretty insane, isn’t it?”
Doug said he and his wife originally planned to leave at the end of the month. Now they’re leaving Thursday.
“We fly, so we’re not certain what we’re going to run into when we travel through Toronto,” he said.
According to Doug, he and his fellow Canadian Winter Texans are particularly concerned staying too long could leave them uninsured.
“Another big concern that we have is that we all get travel insurance to come down here, medical insurance, and it supplements our government plan at home, but we’re not sure where that’s going to go,” he said. “If we got the coronavirus, we’re not sure what would happen if we stayed.”
Kristi Collier, President of Winter Texan resource organization Welcome Home RGV, confirmed that the Valley’s Canadians were leaving to weather the pandemic at home.
“As far as we are concerned we are extremely lucky that this hit now instead of November, otherwise we may not have had a Winter Texan season,” she said.
Collier says that RV parks have taken measures to prevent any potential spread of the virus among residents who stay.
“Most RV resorts have canceled events and activities,” she said.
Susan Aluzri, with Palm Shadows RV Park in Donna, says her park’s corporate management made the decision to change protocol.
“The guests that we’re not letting in is for any kind of function, like any kind of dance or anything. For guests in your own home, they’re allowed,” she said. “We’ve had entertainers cancel for the shows, everybody’s concerned.”
Aluzri said the decision was made in part because residents at the part could be particularly at-risk.
“We have a lot of older people. We’re just a 55 and older park, so just to protect our residents,” she said.
Although the park isn’t going to be as rambunctious as it usually is, Aluzri said residents are certainly allowed to have their own guests over and smaller gatherings won’t be banned.
“We’ll have to find our own fun,” she said.
FLEA MARKETS CONTEMPLATE GATHERING BAN
There’s few institutions quite as central to life in the Valley as pulgas, which routinely attract crowds far greater than 50.
The Alamo Mercadome, one of the Valley’s largest flea markets, announced Tuesday that it would be shutting its doors for the rest of the month. The affiliated Mercedes Flea Market will follow suit.
“We decided on doing that last night, but we couldn’t stop the move in this morning,”
Taek Kim with the market said Tuesday. “It’ll be closed tomorrow. We’ll be empty tomorrow.”
Kim says that he fears the closure will hurt vendors at the pulga
“Of course it will hurt the business quite a lot, especially the vendors. A lot of vendors rely on it on a day to day basis here, but we have to make the decision to do that to make sure we’re doing the right thing,” he said.
The health of the public made that decision necessary, Kim said.
“With the safety and health of our community as our highest priority, we feel it is our social responsibility to temporarily close our flea markets to reduce the risk of spread of the Coronavirus during this pandemic,” a statement on the markets’ website said. “We also recognize the hardships this decision may have on our customers and vendors and assure you that this decision has not been taken lightly. Please be patient with us as we continue to monitor the situation closely and follow recommendations made by public health officials.”
Other flea markets have not announced plans to close, including the Don-Wes Flea Market in Donna.
Co-owner Jim Fitzgerald said Tuesday that preparations were underway to open the market Wednesday.
“Tomorrow’s a business day for us and then we’ll be back on the beat,” he said.
Fitzgerald said the market has been having trouble reassuring attendees the market would go on.
“It seems like everybody’s trying to bail on us, so we want to keep everybody calm and in there, so we’re trying to assure everybody that everythings okay and we’re going to be open and it hasn’t really hurt us, as best we can tell,” he said.
According to Fitzgerald, the market will continue until ordered otherwise.
“They need to present that to us in writing, so we’re going to be open unless somebody comes to us and is in our face and says, ‘Hey, we’re with the county of Hidalgo and we are officially here to tell you if there’s more than 50 people, you have to shut down,” he said. “But nobody has done that yet, so we’re going to be open.”
BARS, RESTAURANTS KEEP CROWDS DOWN
Restaurants and bars around the Valley have taken a variety of precautions to prevent potential spread of COVID-19. Many have introduced curbside pickup options. Others have closed dining rooms, implemented crowd size limits or taken other steps to reduce attendance.
Some restaurants have simply removed their tables and chairs.
Like many other chains, Whataburger closed its dining room Tuesday and went drive-thru to and pickup only.
“Starting Thursday, March 19th, we are introducing curbside delivery for your online order only between the hours of 8 a.m.-8 p.m. at any of our restaurants. The rest of the time (8 p.m. through 8 a.m.) you can coast through the drive-thru to pick up online orders,” the chain said in a statement.
Suerte, a McAllen bar and restaurant with two locations, announced Tuesday that it would be taking steps to adhere to the county’s guidelines.
“Suerte is taking necessary steps to keep our environment as safe an environment as possible for our staff and guests,” Manager Analisa Luna said in a statement. “Our doors are still open, but we are limiting our capacity to half until further notice, and encouraging our customers to use our newly launched Ordering System for our Uptown location.”
Luna said the business will also continue adhering with stringent hygiene guidelines.
“Suerte will continue to enforce a strict hand-washing policy as well as frequent sanitation of our tables, chairs, doors, and other surfaces of the bar and restrooms,” she said. “We will continue to provide updates accordingly and seek guidance from local officials.”
Other establishments have canceled some amenities in hopes of keeping attendance to a minimum, like McAllen’s American Legion Post 37.
“As of right now, we’re just taking precautions by cancelling our food and cancelling our band, so we can try to keep control on our intake of people,” manager Jenni Lynn said. “Usually we don’t have more than 50 that come in at one time.”
Lynn says with Winter Texans heading out, crowds should diminish, but the post is still sanitizing and cleaning as much as possible.
“We do cater to the older public, so it is a little worrying,” she said.
Although there’s been talk about going back to being members only, Lynn says the bar intends to stay open.
“Until the president says something where we have to shut down, we’ll be open,” she said.
Cardenas, with the RGV Partnership, says the Small Business Administration is already coordinating relief to businesses affected by the pandemic.
“ The SBA is offering disaster assistance in response to the coronavirus. These are up to two million dollars in assistance, and these loans may be used to pay fixed debts, payrolls, accounts payable, other bills that can’t be paid because of the disaster’s impact,” he said. “We are appreciative the SBA has such programs in place.”
Information on the relief programs is available on the SBA website.