Hidalgo County orders: ‘Shelter at home’

With eight Hidalgo County residents now having tested positive for the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19, Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez announced that a “shelter at home” order will go into effect countywide beginning Thursday night.

The two-week order, which may be extended beyond its April 10 expiration date, marks the most stringent efforts by county leaders to slow the spread of the pathogen that is overwhelming hospital systems in hotspots such as New York City and New Orleans.

Cortez said seeing how the disease is ravaging those communities has spurred him to take action here.

“We know now that other areas didn’t take this virus seriously and now are suffering because of their inactions,” Cortez said. “We cannot allow this to happen here.”

Locally, eight people have tested positive for COVID-19 — four from McAllen, two from Mission, among them City Councilman Beto Vela, and one each in Alamo and Edinburg. As of Wednesday’s virtual news conference with the county judge and other health and law enforcement leaders, 180 people in the county have been tested. Of those, 110 have been negative, and 62 more are awaiting their results.

The order also comes after Cameron County, which has 10 confirmed cases, Starr County, which reported negative results Wednesday in its first batch of tests, and the Hidalgo County cities of Palmview and Edinburg issued their own orders.

Hidalgo County’s 11-page emergency order goes into effect at 11:59 p.m. Thursday night and lasts through 11:59 p.m. April 10. It may be extended if necessary.

Hidalgo County residents may not leave their homes, except in limited circumstances, such as to see a doctor, or to obtain essential supplies for their household, family members, or pets. That includes groceries, prescriptions, or supplies needed to work from home.

Residents are also allowed to continue outdoor activities, such as going for a walk, but must maintain social distancing guidelines, keeping a minimum of 6 feet between themselves and others. All county parks will be closed.

People engaged in “essential business” will also continue to be allowed freedom of movement. Those people include law enforcement and other first responders; healthcare industry workers; essential retail workers, such as food service workers and grocery store employees; essential government employees, the news media; and childcare providers, among limited others.

The order effectively shutters any non-essential business, including retail, entertainment, fitness and personal care businesses. Restaurants and bars must remain closed to all but drive-thru, delivery or takeout service.

Church and religious services are also suspended for the duration of the emergency order, with the exception that a church may have up to 10 staff members on hand in order to facilitate remote religious services.

If a person tests positive for the coronavirus then they and their entire household are ordered to isolate at home. They will be prohibited from going to work, school or any other community function, the order reads.

For people who have been traveling and are now returning to the county, they are “highly encouraged” to self-isolate for 14 days and practice social distancing and hygiene guidelines.

Visitors are prohibited from nursing homes and long-term care facilities, except “to provide critical assistance and for end-of-life visitation,” the order reads.

Furthermore, the order temporarily suspends all residential evictions and home foreclosures for 30 days.

Finally, the emergency order prohibits price gouging, and enables law enforcement to take action should such price gouging occur. Essential goods such as groceries, toiletries, fuel and auto parts, medicines, and even residential rental prices may not cost more than they did on March 17, the order reads.

Anyone who violates the emergency order may be subject to up to 180 days in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.

The shelter at home order didn’t come easy, however, as Cortez and other county leaders weighed the consequences it will have on businesses and residents alike.

“How do you dare come in and stop some of these freedoms that we enjoy each and every day?” Cortez pondered. “Well, Americans, and especially people here in the Rio Grande Valley, and especially the people in Hidalgo County, always rise to the occasion.”

He referred to the pandemic as a war — one that will cause hardship, but one that can be won.

Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez agreed, imploring residents to heed the order. “These orders are a matter of life and death. Simply put,” Rodriguez said.

“If these orders are not followed, someone could die. There could be grave consequences, so again, we’re asking that you please help us,” he said.

Thus far, none of the eight people who have tested positive for COVID-19 have required hospitalization, though officials expect that to change as more people test positive.

As for getting tested, officials said that requires a recommendation from a physician and consultation with the Hidalgo County Health Department.

“Your physician will review with you and if he agrees that you need to be tested … then he will call the Hidalgo County Health Department and he will talk to one of the epidemiologists who then will confirm the requirements that we have for testing,” Dr. Ivan Melendez, the county’s health authority, said Wednesday.

To meet those requirements, a person must be symptomatic, have traveled to certain areas identified as hot spots, or have had close contact with a person who has tested positive. If the requirements are met, then the person will be given a date and time to appear at a testing site, Melendez said.

For more information, Hidalgo County residents are encouraged to call the county’s coronavirus hotline at (956) 292-7765.