Valley leaders concerned with Abbott’s mask-lifting mandate

Local leaders in the Rio Grande Valley met Gov. Greg Abbott’s lift on statewide mask mandates and his decision to allow businesses to operate at full capacity with reservation Tuesday.

Concerns were largely centered on encouraging diligence in following safety precautions amid the ongoing pandemic.

Abbott’s order comes a week after Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez announced the county was no longer considered a “high hospitalization” area by the state and permitted businesses to operate at 75% capacity and bars at 50%.

Cortez said he appreciated the governor’s efforts to return to normalcy, but was worried “we may be moving too quickly.”

“I don’t want to second guess the governor,” Cortez told The Monitor on Tuesday. “He has an important job to do — but so do I. He talked about having science dictate his actions. I don’t know what science he is relying on to have made this decision. I would like to see Hidalgo County continue wearing masks, continue physical separation in our businesses.”

The county was considered a high COVID-19 hospitalization area at the beginning of the year when the hospital rate was above 15% for longer than seven consecutive days. An order still in place by the governor requires regions that meet that threshold to reduce business capacity to 50% and halt elective surgeries in hospitals.

After the county met the order’s requirements, hospitalizations dropped by nearly 75%.

On Jan. 9, the eighth day the county’s hospitalization rate for virus patients was above 15%, 683 were fighting COVID-19 in hospitals. On Tuesday, according to a separate news release, there were 184 virus patients in the county, with 89 in intensive care units.

Though the entire Valley’s hospitalization rate is below 15%, the county alone is over that threshold, the county judge said.

County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez said Tuesday he and the entire local medical community were “shocked” by the governor’s announcement.

“The first thing should have been to decrease group gathering numbers, open outside parks and centers… the last thing you do when you are looking at a pandemic scenario is to eliminate masks and open up the entire community 100%,” Melendez said.

He noted the community has been on the right track mitigating the spread of the virus — nearly 120,000 people have been vaccinated, hospitalizations have dropped, infection rates have slowed — but the governor’s decision poses a “super counterproductive move, which was done way too early.”

Withdrawing masks and allowing businesses to operate should not have been a “one size fits all decision,” Melendez said.

“You can’t treat Odessa the same as Corpus Christi, the same as Dallas, the same as Abilene the same as the Valley, as being the same territory. … In our community, we are at a great disadvantage if we take our masks off now. We are the most diabetic, we are the most obese, we are the most hypertensive, we are the most poor, we have the least access to health care.

“If we were going to follow the science, we certainly would not be getting rid of masks at this point,” Melendez said, sitting in a local COVID-19 ward as medical equipment beeped in the background.

He added that the governor should have waited to make those changes until the community was closer to reaching herd immunity, which is when about 80% of a population is immune. Melendez estimated that around 40% of Hidalgo County residents are immune.

On Monday, 59 deaths related to COVID-19 were confirmed across the state — seven of those deaths, or 11%, were from Hidalgo County.

“Science is helping us reduce the spreading of this deadly virus that has killed over 2,000 of our citizens,” Cortez said. “I wish he would have waited a little longer… I just want citizens of Hidalgo County to continue to practice the precautions that we know are the recommendations of scientists.”

Cortez says his office is reviewing Abbott’s decision to lift masks mandates and is considering enacting an order that would require masks anyway. However, under Abbott’s order, penalties can not be imposed for not wearing a mask.

As of Tuesday, the county’s death toll stands at 2,654, while 390 new cases of the virus were confirmed, raising the case tally to 77,702.

Almost half of the new cases of COVID-19 in Hidalgo County were residents in their 20s or younger. About 48%, or 189 people, were in that age group.

More specifically, 11% of the new cases were Mission residents in their 20s or younger.

Mission Mayor Dr. Armando O’Caña echoed Cortez’s sentiment, imploring the community to continue wearing masks anyway.

“While everyone can agree that the precautionary measures taken by the community have been working, the virus is still here,” the mayor said in a news release. “I know the numbers are a little more favorable, but every day we are adding to the number of people testing positive for COVID-19.”

The mayor ordered city staff and visitors to wear masks while at city facilities, including city hall, the Center for Education and Economic Development and the Mission Chamber of Commerce.

Other entities followed suit Tuesday and issued similar statements, including Mission CISD, McAllen ISD, Sharyland ISD, La joya ISD, IDEA Public Schools and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Like Cortez, Melendez and O’Caña, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, worried the governor’s decision will push the community to relax virus precautions.

“I want our economy in Texas to thrive, but we cannot do that at the expense of our public health,” the congressman said in a news release. “This decision is premature and I hope businesses lead by taking the health and safety of other Texans seriously with the implementation of this new executive order next week.”

Also on Tuesday, Cameron County confirmed three more deaths due to COVID-19, along with 43 new cases of the virus.

The death toll there is now 1,498, according to a news release, and the total cases stands at 32,095.

Additionally, 238 people were reported to have recovered from the virus Tuesday, raising total recoveries to 32,095.