RGV cities setting up checkpoints to enforce stay-at-home orders

Cities throughout the Rio Grande Valley are beginning to crack down on emergency stay-at-home orders enacted to combat the spread of COVID-19 by setting up checkpoints throughout their respective cities in response to worries that enough residents were in compliance.

The city of Peñitas is among the cities that plan to set up checkpoints, a decision that was prompted by the large amount of traffic they were still seeing on their main thoroughfares, according to City Manager Omar Romero.

That observation was echoed by Peñitas Police Chief Roel Bermea, who said they were told there were still too many people on the road at night.

“We just want to make sure that people are complying with the order,” Bermea said Tuesday.

Details are still being worked out as they are still in the planning stages, Bermea said, but there will either be two or three checkpoints throughout the city.

Of the actual process of going through one of the checkpoints, Bermea said officers will be asking people what their purpose is for being on the road.

“If they’re going home we’re OK with that, but if they’re just driving around or doing nothing, then of course we have the option of taking action on that,” Bermea said. “If they do have something documenting that they are working, that they’re coming from work, then that’s fine. That’ll be perfect for us. They still have to prove to us that they have business.”

All counties in the Rio Grande Valley issued their own versions of a stay-at-home order last week that prohibits travel outside of the home unless the purpose is for an essential activity such as going to work for an essential business, seeking medical attention, and going to the grocery store.

A person who violates the orders could face a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 180 days in jail.

“This is not a business for us, we just want to see if we can get compliance,” Bermea said of issuing citations.

He added that they hope to educate the public about the order to remain at home and the significance of that.

“We just want to put it out there that we will be out there at nights and making sure that people are complying, we need that compliance so we can stop the spread of this virus,” Bermea said. “People are not taking it seriously, that’s the problem.”

It was a similar sentiment that motivated the city of Edcouch to implement those checkpoints which began operating on Monday.

“ We noticed that our efforts to try to enforce (the order) were not working,” said Edcouch City Manager Victor Hugo De La Cruz who explained their previous efforts consisted of random stops.

“We still saw a lot of people of people out in the streets so we came up with the idea of creating the checkpoint,” he said.

Edcouch will have two checkpoints at a time that will be set up at different locations throughout the day.

After just two days of having those checkpoints, De La Cruz said the new initiative was already working, adding that on the first day “some of the officers did get a little happy with the citations.”

But more importantly, De La Cruz said, the officers encountered an individual who could have contracted the virus and was being tested.

“He was on his way to go get his medication,” he said. “We took the necessary precautions and escorted him and made sure that he went back home after he got his medication.”

De La Cruz stressed the importance of only leaving the home if they fall under the definition of an essential employee.

“If we’re going to try to combat this enemy, we’re going to have to start being a little bit more efficient with enforcing or up the enforcement game so that we can try to minimize the exposure,” he said.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez asked law enforcement to do just that in a news release issued Tuesday afternoon.

“We know there is a tsunami coming,” Cortez stated in the release. “It hasn’t hit us yet. If there is anything we can do to mitigate this, it is stronger enforcement on the orders.”

The city of Palmview announced Tuesday that they will also set up checkpoints to enforce the stay-at-home orders.

The announcement came from a post on the city’s Facebook page which stated they would begin enforcement through those checkpoints “immediately.”

In Starr County, Roma City Manager Crisanto Salinas said the city is seriously looking into setting up checkpoints to control the traffic they are still seeing and enforce the orders issued by the city and the county. However, they’re still in the planning stages.

Salinas explained the city needs permission from the Texas Department of Transportation as the city’s main artery, U.S. Highway 83, is owned by the state.

De La Cruz said the Rio Grande Valley needed to learn from what is happening in areas like New York City where hospitals are overwhelmed with the high number of patients with COVID-19.

“We need to really, really take these precautions right now and not take this for granted,” De La Cruz said. “What people need to realize is that the next step is a full lockdown, and a full lockdown would mean everything’s closed and you’re at home.”