Alton mayor assures he’s taking pandemic seriously

ALTON — Mayor Salvador Vela said the coronavirus pandemic is a big deal and that he takes the situation very seriously, clarifying comments he had made Tuesday that the situation was mostly “hype.”

During a ceremony Tuesday in which Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez signed a disaster declaration to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, Vela said “a lot of this is hype.”

“The media is to blame for it, I think, because they like the juicy stuff,” Vela said. “And I don’t blame them — that sells newspapers or advertising — but this thing will pass.”

Vela’s remarks were brought up to Dr. Emilie Prot, regional medical director for the Texas Department of State Health Services, who acknowledged the mayor’s remarks at a press conference Wednesday with a question.

“Is he a doctor?” Prot posed.

She said the pandemic is very real and growing in intensity in the United States.

“Day to day we have the numbers that are going up, in deaths and also in number of confirmed cases, so unfortunately this is something that is happening,” she said.

“We do need to make sure that we understand what we need to do in churches, in non-governmental organizations, in governmental organizations,” she said. “We need to practice that social distancing – where we work, where we pray, where we go to school.”

Prot also said the response effort would rely on the media to convey accurate information about COVID-19.

“Of course we do need the help of the media to convey valid messages so that we cannot panic but better prepare so that we all know what our responsibilities are, and how we can take action,” she said.

Later that day, the city of Alton called an emergency meeting to also issue a disaster declaration.

After the meeting, when asked to clarify his comments, Vela said he was referring to social media.

“They’re the ones that are doing a lot of damage,” he said. “As a matter of fact, a lot of residents call me and they thought everything was going to be closed. That’s why they were hoarding all this stuff, buying stuff left and right.”

He said residents were hearing somewhere everything was going to be closed.

“That’s why I said that,” he said. “I didn’t mean to offend to offend you.”

A reporter for the Progress Times, however, pointed out that Vela had mentioned newspaper and ad sales in his comments to which Vela replied that what he said has different interpretations.

“Sometimes you don’t mean that because it has different interpretations, everything I say,” he said. “I didn’t mean to hurt the media either because media is my friend; they’re friends because they deliver the message. I like the media, I just wanted to restore some calm.”

Despite his comments, Vela said he stands with Cortez and is taking the situation seriously.

“But I don’t scare easy either because at the end of the day, God is going to receive me and I’m going to go to heaven; I’m doing God’s will here,” the mayor said. “This is just God preparing us for the future; what’s going to come later. That’s what I get from this.”

He again reiterated that he was misinterpreted and that he spoke abruptly.

“You get mad, you get angry — you’re not in your five senses when you say something like that. I didn’t say it in an eloquent way,” he said. “I said it…off the cuff. I didn’t prepare a statement — I never do, I just talk and I talk what I feel.”

As part of the disaster declaration that was issued for the city, which will last for two weeks, will allows resources to be at their disposal if need be.

This will allow the city to request reimbursements, if necessary, from the state and federal government.

“Business as usual, for us,” said Alton City Manager Jeff Underwood. “We’re taking all necessary precautions.”

He added the city was making arrangements to help their employees with childcare to enable them to keep working, especially employees in their central services such as police, fire, and garbage collection.

“So we’re taking those and, of course, keeping everything as clean as possible,” Underwood said.

The owners of the flea market on 6 Mile Road, Pulga Los Portales, indicated they will be closing, Underwood said, and the city will be speaking with the owners of the flea market on 4 Mile Road, Ochoa’s Flea Market, about closure as the declaration will bar gatherings of more than 50 people.

Additionally, the city will waive arraignments for Class C misdemeanors for 30 days.

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Staff Writer Matthew Wilson contributed to this story.