McAllen mayor speaks all things COVID-19

McALLEN — The mayor here answered a number of questions regarding COVID-19 in a virtual meeting with members of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce on Thursday.

During the 40-minute Zoom meeting, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling touched on a number of issues, ranging from code enforcement to parks to immigration and revenue, as chamber members submitted questions via a chat feature.

Darling began the meeting by reiterating what nearly every elected official in the country has been saying for weeks now: stay home and limit your exposure.

“A lot of our families are showing up with all of their family to go get groceries,” he said. “We’re thinking of limiting grocery stores to two people at a time for a family. … We’re trying to think of how to tighten up using and visiting essential services without denying people (access to) essential services.”

Darling also encouraged both employees and customers to report businesses that violate the emergency orders in place, which only allow essential businesses to operate.

“If you’re a customer and see that, call that up. We have to have enforcement,” Darling said. “You see something that’s not right, call 311.”

The Rio Grande Valley has yet to see an onslaught of hospitalizations due to the novel coronavirus, but that could change, he said, noting that “testing is very limited.”

“We don’t have very many people in the hospital with the virus, obviously. So it’s kind of a waiting process and they’re waiting for that,” he said. “I think our hospitals are as ready as they can be. At the same token, we don’t know what it’s going to be like. The county judge said it’s going to be very, very serious. I don’t disagree with that at all.”

The mayor urged everyone to adhere to social distancing guidelines, but especially those with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and those with pulmonary illnesses.

“Everybody needs to be extra careful,” he said. “Try to limit who goes out.”

And in an effort to curb the spread, McAllen will be closing its parks for the Easter weekend, he said.

McAllen Parks & Recreation crews have already begun removing picnic tables from all city parks, which will close April 10-12. The parks will reopen April 13 to give the community access to the open spaces and free Wi-Fi.

Picnic areas, however, will remain closed until further notice. Meanwhile, the brief Easter closure will not affect McAllen hike and bike trails.

“We recognize that our McAllen parks are a favorite location for area families to host their Easter celebrations,” McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez said in a news release Thursday. “However, the risk of mass gatherings and not maintaining proper social distancing at these picnic events was too great a chance to keep our parks open during this weekend.”

Darling said residents need to take personal responsibility before we can “turn a corner.”

“A lot of people have been going across (the border) looking for that Malaria drug, even though that’s sold out,” he said, referencing hydroxychloroquine. “Don’t go there.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is reducing the hours of operations for passenger vehicles and pedestrians at international bridges, Darling said, adding that the city engages in weekly calls with CBP officers.

U.S. Border Patrol agents are also not processing any cases and those with visitor visas are no longer allowed to enter the U.S. unless they are involved in essential industries.

“Our respite center is not receiving any asylum seekers,” Darling said.

And due to the decline in lawful border crossings, the city is bracing for more revenue loss.

“Bridges are way down,” Darling said. So too are hotel occupancies and sales taxes, which account for about 60 percent of McAllen’s annual budget.

“Our main revenue is sales tax, number one,” he said. “Property tax is number two.”

Still, Darling remained optimistic in the face of uncertainty.

“We’ll get through this,” he said.