Majority of McAllen’s COVID-19 violations occur downtown

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McALLEN — Code enforcement officers cited nearly 100 businesses since the pandemic began last year, and a majority of them are located downtown.

McAllen Environmental Health and Code Enforcement Director Steven Kotsatos told commissioners Monday his staff issued 97 citations at businesses throughout the city, with 55 of them cited for COVID-19 related violations.

Out of the 97 violations, 61 occurred at “restaurants” downtown and about half of them were issued because the businesses were not complying with COVID-19 guidelines, primarily social distancing rules, Kotsatos said.

Of those 61 violations downtown, 31 were for COVID-19 related violations: 24 were issued to businesses that did not follow social distancing rules, 4 were issued to businesses that failed to have employees wear a face mask and 2 were issued for being over capacity. The other 30 citations were issued for violations outside of COVID-19 and involved issues such as smoking, unsanitary conditions and food and alcohol permits, among others.

Out of the 61 citations issued downtown, 14 of the businesses were repeat offenders, Kotsatos said, but did not mention names.

McAllen Municipal Judge Lauren Renee Sepulveda also noted many of the citations have not been paid.

“We have been processing them through our dockets. I have been setting bonds, and from my understanding, a lot of those bonds are not being paid, so that’s our concern,” she said.

City officials were quick to note that a majority of downtown businesses that were once considered bars are now classified as restaurants under the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission (TABC).

“Starting in September and October, the bars downtown changed their TABC status to live inside dining and occupancy, with more of a food sales than alcohol sales,” Kotsatos said.

“There’s no such thing as a bar downtown, they’re restaurants,” McAllen Mayor Jim Darling added. “If they’re open, they’re considered restaurants, according to the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission.”

During this change-up, complaints from residents also increased dramatically, going from 26 in September to 135 in October.

“With these establishments opening, we ramped up our operations downtown, working a total of 1,100 hours,” Kotsatos said.

Darling said the city considered ways to curb late-night activity at these establishments, but they conflicted with state orders.

“(We) thought…. it would solve the problem if we said after ten o’clock it’s only take out (food) … and we were told we couldn’t do that because it violates the governor’s order,” Darling said. “So that’s why these ‘restaurants’ can stay open at two o’clock in the morning.”

City’s code enforcement officers, however, have been performing bimonthly inspections there from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Kotsatos said, noting there have been more than 400 inspections in that district alone.

Citywide, his officers have inspected 3,926 businesses since the pandemic first hit the region in March 2020. About 1,600 of those inspections were meant to be educational, with staff delivering CDC guidelines to the businesses. Another 1,500 inspections were focused on restaurants, bars and buffets.