Faced with a growing number of COVID-19 related deaths, Starr County commissioners decided to allocate more funds toward grants for funeral expenses by suspending a grant program meant to help small businesses affected by the pandemic.

The county commissioners unanimously agreed to suspend the small business grant program that initially would have given $1,500 grants to businesses within the county’s rural areas such as La Victoria, La Casita, Salineño, San Isidro, and other non-incorporated areas.

The funds allocated for that will instead go toward their condolence program which was set up to help cover funeral expenses for families of individuals who died due to COVID-19 related complications.

These programs are funded with money the county received through the coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress earlier this year. Though larger jurisdictions such as Hidalgo County received the funds directly from the U.S. Department of Treasury, smaller ones like Starr County received them through the state which imposed some restrictions.

Among them was that counties could only use 25% of their funds for community programs such as grants for utilities, small businesses and funeral expenses. For Starr County, that means only $459,200 can be used for that.

“It’s really going to be tough because we cannot expend a million dollars — or a million and some — buying sanitizers and new stuff like that. I mean, there’s no way we can spend that time or money,” Vera told the commissioners during a meeting on Monday. “Regardless, we’re going to try, we’re going to look at different ways at how we can spend that money because I don’t want to leave it at the state level.”

So far, 135 Starr County residents have died due to the coronavirus, according to data collected by the Department of State Health Services, and the county intended to offer up to $2,000 per family.

To qualify for the grant, families must present documentation that the deceased individual died due to COVID-19. Following that, checks would be paid directly to the funeral homes to cover the expenses that are owed. If the costs were already paid, then the funeral home would distribute the money back to the family or the person who paid.

But with the estimated $250,000 cap on that program, the county would have only been able to aid the funeral expensed for 125 people.

“If we leave it as we have it, there’s no way we could cover (it),” Vera said. “Plus, I’m sure, unfortunately, there will be some more deaths as we move forward.”

Vera first proposed lowering the amount of business grants to $1,000 each but Commissioners Jaime Alvarez and Raul “Roy” Peña III suggested hitting pause on the business grants altogether.

Rose Benavidez, the president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, told the commissioners that about 20 businesses had already applied for the grants.

But they unanimously voted to suspend the program and divert funds toward funeral expenses, raising the amount of money available to families of those who have died from COVID-19 to $384,000.

If funds are still available in November, the county will resume the business grant program at that time.

Meanwhile, businesses within Rio Grande City will still have the opportunity to apply for relief.

The city launched their own relief grant program that offers a one-time $1,000 grant for eligible small businesses.

Information on how to apply can be found on the city’s website.