Whether the skies over Weslaco will be filled with the crack, pop, boom of fireworks this Independence Day despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a question that remains unanswered even though city leaders voted to approve the event during a commission meeting Tuesday.
Just two days after approving the holiday fireworks display in a 3-2 vote, officials now say they will revisit the issue during a special meeting Monday afternoon. Mayor David Suarez and Commissioner Letty Lopez voted against the display. Commissioners Josh Pedraza and Jose “J.P” Rodriguez did not attend the meeting.
“It appears we may have a special meeting on Monday to reconsider if we’re going to do the fireworks at all,” Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez said via phone Thursday.
“You saw the high (COVID-19) numbers that we have and there’s a growing concern that we may be providing an activity that will, I guess, promote greater social gathering when we ought to be, at this time, a little bit more cautious about that,” Perez said.
The commission initially voted to move the annual Fourth of July fireworks display to Harlon Block Park on the city’s south side. The plan is to completely close the park to vehicular and pedestrian access, and allow residents to watch the spectacle from the safety of their homes.
However, some members of the commission have expressed concern than Weslaco residents would try to congregate around the park, presenting both social distancing and public safety concerns.
“That is a concern. We were gonna have both police and fire, code enforcement and probably (the) parks and public works (departments) to make sure that people stay out of the park,” Perez said.
“That’s part of the issue is that we do have people who don’t believe in following rules,” he said.
For Mayor Suarez, his main concerns are that pedestrians would congregate around the park, or park their vehicles on the narrow roads surrounding it — country roads which do not have curbs or shoulders — and would create public safety hazards.
“Even though the park’s gonna be closed, I think people are gonna try to go and watch it from the canal levy or from the road,” Suarez said. “It’s gonna create a little bit of a traffic … and it’s gonna be hard to control that,” he said.
For District 3 Commissioner J.P. Rodriguez, a career law enforcement officer, public safety is at the forefront of his concerns, as well.
Unable to attend Tuesday’s regular meeting, Rodriguez said he is looking forward to the commission revisiting the issue at Monday’s special meeting. “I think safety always has to take a priority because we want to make sure that nobody is gonna get put at risk,” Rodriguez said.
“We have to look at the risk versus the rewards. … In this particular situation, in the present, because of what we’re seeing that we need to closely examine the risk versus the reward in regards to COVID-19,” he said, adding that the recent spike in cases has been “hard to keep up with.”
But some on the commission feel the fireworks display can be held safely, and offer residents at least one moment of normalcy amidst a pandemic that has upended everyday life.
“I don’t have an issue with it,” said District 1 Commissioner Leo Muñoz. “The event is gonna be closed to the public, so everybody is just gonna enjoy it from their houses,” he said, adding that he didn’t think the closed event would encourage mass gatherings.
Muñoz, who was one of the three commissioners who voted to approve the fireworks display Tuesday, said he will likely vote for it again on Monday, but invited residents to share their input. “I would like to get people’s comments, but so far, I haven’t heard any real issues that I think are gonna be a problem,” he said.
And though the mayor voted against it, he said he’s keeping an open mind going into Monday’s meeting. Should city staff show that potential problems can be overcome, he may change his mind, Suarez said.
“I’d like to listen to the arguments for and against. Look at all the pros and cons, and if I’m convinced that we can secure safety … if all that’s gonna get mitigated, I might be open either way,” Suarez said.
Rodriguez, too, said he will keep an open mind before making his decision, but again stressed the worrisome trends in new coronavirus cases and increased hospitalizations. “The numbers are concerning,” he said. “I’m real concerned about not overwhelming our healthcare resources — not just in Weslaco, but here in the Rio Grande Valley.”