By Naxiely Lopez-Puente and Matt Wilson

Hidalgo County officials implemented a curfew Monday and ordered more businesses deemed “non-essential” to close.

Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com
Rhonda Rubio is seen cutting hair through the reflection of a mirror at Rhonda’s Barber Shop on Monday, March 23, 2020, in McAllen.

“I come to you with a heavy heart and a huge burden — but nevertheless a very important event — because all of the actions that we have taken up to date affect many lives of our citizens,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said in a televised news conference Monday.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus has forced county officials to create a new way to communicate their decisions to media outlets and, by extension, the public. So on Monday, six of the top officials handling the local response to the COVID-19 pandemic gathered to answer questions that reporters submitted via a virtual document.

Those officials included Cortez and fellow county administrators Dr. Ivan Melendez, the health authority, Health and Human Services Chief Administrative Officer Eddie Olivarez, Sheriff Eddie Guerra, District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez Jr., and Emergency Management Coordinator Ricardo Saldaña.

Together, they tried to explain the county’s newest emergency order, which bans non-essential travel from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and orders a number of businesses to shut their doors, including hair and nail salons, barber shops, gyms, spas, piercing parlors, tattoo shops, movie theatres, bowling alleys and other entertainment venues. The order went into effect Monday and ends April 5.

“What do we know that has helped us reach the decisions that we reached today,” Cortez rhetorically asked himself. “That we must learn from others. We must learn from the past to guide us on the decisions we’re going to be faced with and are going to make in the future. What do we know? We know there is a virus that is very contagious. We know it spreads very quickly and sometimes very silently.”

As of Monday evening, Hidalgo County had two confirmed cases. At least 82 people have been tested. Thirty came back negative and 50 results were still pending. Melendez, however, expects that number to climb.

“We all know that there are a lot more people that have this disease,” he said.

Previous testing criteria, which Melendez described as “very strict,” made it difficult for people to get tested, but the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently loosened that criteria and gave physicians more flexibility to test patients, he said.

“All of our cases are traveled related, but we expect that to probably change,” he added.

NEW RULES

Cortez tried to summarize his new order in a few sentences.

“If it’s necessary for you to do it — (if your life depends on it) — do it,” he said. “Do the things that you need to do, but if it’s not necessary, then don’t. It’s that simple.”

The curfew has a few exceptions.

It does not apply to persons who work for government agencies that will remain open as determined by their local government authorities. It also doesn’t apply to persons traveling to and from essential businesses and retail establishments, such as grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations; persons authorized to travel by the emergency management director; and law enforcement, first responders and emergency medical services personnel.

Those who are caught violating the curfew could be charged with a class B misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to 180 days in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine.

“We’d like to start off with educating the public first,” the sheriff said. “We will start by educating them and giving them warnings and hopefully they’ll comply. … A lot of these people probably might not even know that there’s a curfew.”

Getting the word out to a community with nearly 1 million residents might be one of the biggest challenges.

Rhonda Rubio, a McAllen barbershop owner who’s been cutting hair for the past 14 years, was not aware the new order required her to close her business. Rubio said she avoids the news and hadn’t received any type of notification from the county.

“Am I going to comply with it? Yes, because on top of not having an income I cannot afford to have a fine on top of that,” she said. “But we’re gonna have some messed up haircuts.”

Rubio said she intended to keep operating until instructed otherwise.

“I don’t think it is fair. I mean, this is what we depend on, this is our bread and butter,” she said. “I’m doing my part in keeping everything sanitized, the door handles, not allowing people to come in here in big groups. I work alone, so at the most it’s usually five, six.”

If those restrictions last more than two weeks, Rubio said, they could have dire consequences for the business community.

“Who’s gonna pay our bills?” she said. “If it goes for more than a month or two months, we’re going to be in some type of trouble. Every small business owner is going to be, because we depend on serving our community.”

Cortez acknowledged there could be repercussions to his decision.

“There’s always some unintended consequences… this is a road that hasn’t been traveled much, so there’s not a book of wisdom I can go back to…” he said. “The decisions that I’m trying to make are based on experts’ opinions.”

Melendez agreed.

“This problem is not solved in the hospital. This problem is not resolved by the physicians. There is no medication that cures this. The people who are going to solve this problem are going to be the community members,” he said. “And what we have (seen) across the board is that if people isolate from people, then that will control the penetration of the disease.

“A lot of us doctors believe that the only thing that is more infectious than this particular virus is the love that everyone has for their family and for their community.”

HERE’S WHAT’S EXEMPTED

  • Healthcare and pharmaceutical services
  • Agricultural and food supply
  • Telecommunications
  • Call centers that service critical infrastructure
  • Information technology
  • Staffing operations centers
  • Those offering repair and maintenance services to critical infrastructure
  • Banking and financial institutions
  • Insurance and legal services
  • Public utilities
  • Critical manufacturing and construction
  • Emergency services
  • Fire and law enforcement
  • Public works
  • Sanitation services
  • Transportation and logistics