On the Fourth of July of 2020, The Monitor reported on its front page a story headlined, “Health official: Valley hospitals at capacity, divert patients,” in which the health authority for Starr County at the time, Dr. Jose Vazquez, alerted that local hospitals were overwhelmed with patients suffering from COVID-19.

That story further reported 438 new cases of the coronavirus confirmed for neighboring Hidalgo County, in addition to four deaths and 478 people in local hospitals with the disease — all recorded the previous day.

One year later, on July 2, 2021, Hidalgo County reported 51 hospitalizations, 65 new cases, and zero deaths.

Pandemic protocols have been largely relaxed and in-person events are planned again, with the vaccination effort leading to a decline in virus activity and providing hope to local residents who are slowly regaining confidence in venturing out their front doors.

In the Rio Grande Valley, the cities of McAllen, Edinburg, Pharr and San Juan all planned in-person Independence Day celebrations this weekend after abandoning plans last year, when holding such festivities would have been unthinkable during a time in which hospitals required morgue trailers to help store the bodies of people who died from COVID-19.

But perhaps if only for a moment — when San Juan on Friday hosted a well-attended event, and as an untold number of revelers in McAllen celebrated Fourth of July weekend largely unmasked at Archer Park on Saturday — it was as though the Valley’s struggles just one year ago were a thing of the distant past.

At Friday’s San Juan celebration, for instance, attendees felt comfortable participating in the city’s festivities without face coverings. There were, however, some masks still seen amid a crowd of people.

San Juan resident Tony Saldaña wore his American flag mask to the event.

“We’re excited and it’s awesome and we’re glad that we’re almost past this,” Saldaña said of the efforts to emerge from the pandemic. “It’s been very hard on a lot of people and a lot of businesses, but hopefully today we’ll have a good crowd.”

Spectators watch the parade during the City of San Juan 4th of July Celebration at the San Juan Municipal Park on Friday in San Juan. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

The event afforded attendees — attendees hungry for merriment — some music and food outdoors, which was refreshing to 29-year-old mom, Amanda Tamez.

Pointing at her baby girl, Tamez said, “She was 6 months when the pandemic started, so she really hasn’t had a lot of interaction with people. And we’re fully vaccinated and our family is fully vaccinated, so we feel comfortable coming out and, you know, getting out a little more, seeing more people.”

She said she got COVID around this time last year and also lost many family members.

After a year alone in isolation with her three children, Tamez said Friday’s celebration meant more to her than just another Fourth of July event.

“It is a celebration for the Fourth of July but also after a long year being stuck at home without any activities, now we get to celebrate this today and that’s really nice,” the Edinburg native said.

Marian Montelongo, a resident from Mission, attended the McAllen festival on Saturday and said it was the first time she and her family had stepped out since the start of the pandemic.

Letty Adame, a McAllen resident who was also at Archer Park on Saturday, said it was about time to express a little joy.

“2020 was a rough year, so this year is just about celebrating and enjoying life,” Adame said.

Given the community’s personal anecdotes about the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Fourth of July festivities symbolize not just a celebration of independence, but of life after witnessing far too much death.

McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos and San Juan Mayor Mario Garza attribute this slow but noticeable return to normalcy to the aggressiveness of the vaccination efforts.

“I’m not gonna say that it’s safe, but what’s happening is that individuals are getting vaccinated, so by us getting vaccinated it kind of loosens up the way of life now,” Garza said. “But at the same time I still encourage everyone to continue practicing social distancing.”

Last Independence Day, fireworks provided a diversion that could be done using social distancing. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Similar to Garza’s sentiment, Villalobos said residents should continue to follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines.

“If people aren’t fully vaccinated then they shouldn’t be participating [in city events],” Villalobos said. “If they’re fully vaccinated like the CDC says, then we’re good.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, who himself contracted and survived COVID-19 last year, reminded Wednesday where the Valley was one year ago, and all that was lost along the way as officials at the local, state and federal levels continue combatting the coronavirus and its variants.

“July the Fourth was the beginning of the worst time,” Cortez said of this time last year. “After the Fourth and till the end of July was the worst period for Hidalgo County. I mean we literally had 35 to 40 people passing every day because of COVID. … It was a terrible, terrible time, and thank God that’s behind us. I say that with a lot of caution, because unfortunately we’re starting to see different variants that are coming in.”

The judge said due to his experience and the current COVID climate, he will be spending the Fourth of July at home with close friends and family.

“A lot of these [things] are personal choices that people make,” Cortez said. “But if it was me sitting down with my family, and my children ask me, ‘Dad, what should we do,’ I would wait and take all the precautions possible. … I’m a little concerned about the other variants because we’re seeing other parts of the world being affected by it, so we can’t lose respect for this virus. We have to continue to follow protocol because it is a very deadly disease.”

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