Hidalgo County extends disaster declaration, implements curfew

*Updated Monday, March 23, 2020 at 4:00 p.m.*

Following two positive cases of the novel Coronavirus confirmed over the weekend, the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court held a Monday video press conference at 2 p.m. this afternoon to discuss the extension of the disaster declaration made in response to COVID-19, as well as lay out the additional emergency measures to be taken moving forward.

The press conference, which did not host any media physically in the court, was streamed live through the Hidalgo County website. Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez spoke on what the county knows currently and why the decision to implement emergency measures, like a county-wide curfew, had to be made.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez addresses the media as he issues a Disaster Declaration for Hidalgo County Monday, March 16, 2020. Progress Times photo by Jose De Leon III

“We must learn from others, and we must learn from the past to guide us on the decisions we’re going to be faced with and are going to make in the future,” Cortez said. “We know that this is a virus that is very contagious, we know it spreads very quickly and it’s sometimes very silent.”

The two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Hidalgo County were travel-related. Cortez said various areas in Texas have been infected by the virus.

“We’ve only tested – that we know of – 82 people,” Cortez said. “Two came in positive, 30 negative, and we’re waiting for the results of another 50.”

According to a press release from the county, an emergency meeting of the court held on Sunday morning extended the disaster declaration until April 5. The Commissioners Court “also extended the ban on gatherings of 10 or more people and outlined the types of gatherings that are banned as well as critical infrastructure that may remain open.” 

Several emergency orders “aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in the county” will take effect immediately. The following orders were sent earlier today.

  • All persons in Hidalgo County must abide by a stay-at-home curfew between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. This order does not apply to persons who are: part of the critical infrastructure industry, persons who work for government agencies that will remain open as determined by local government authorities, persons traveling to and from essential businesses and retail establishments, persons authorized to travel by the Emergency Management Director, law enforcement, first responders and emergency medical services personnel.
  • All fees and service charges associated with telephone and online payments to Hidalgo County will not be imposed.
  • All deadlines imposed by local law enforcement shall be suspended for 30 days.
  • Evictions shall cease for 30 days.
  • Foreclosures shall cease for 30 days.
  • People are encouraged to limit in-person transactions in Hidalgo County facilities.
  • Only essential and emergency matters shall be conducted in the Hidalgo County Courthouse pursuant to orders of the Texas Supreme Court.
  • All nonessential County-related travel is suspended.
  • All nonessential County-related events are suspended.
  • All county boards and advisory committees shall cease in person meetings.
  • Most facilities in Hidalgo County parks will be off limits.
  • Essential County operations shall remain open.
  • No one is allowed to visit nursing homes; retirement or long-term care facilities unless to provide critical care.
  • Schools shall temporarily close.
  • Anyone testing positive for COVID-19 will be ordered to isolate themselves
  • at home.
  • Price controls remain in effect.
  • Child care must comply with state standards.
  • Day activity and health services facilities must comply with state standards as directed by Governor Greg Abbott’s March 19 executive order of disaster.

The press release stated that local law enforcement is authorized to enforce this order as are local and municipal peace officers. Anyone violating any of these orders are subject to a fine of up to $1,000 and a jail term of up to 180 days.

Sheriff Eddie Guerra expanded on how police officers will be enforcing these new orders during the press conference.

“The stay at home curfew will be enforced by all peace officers in Hidalgo County – we’ve met with pretty much all the police chiefs of all the police departments, and the regional director of DPS [Dept. of Public Safety], to go over the [curfew],” Guerra said, noting that while officers will have the ability to enforce the order outside of their jurisdiction, they are encouraged to stay within the boundaries of their municipality to ensure every area in Hidalgo County is covered. “The violation is a Class B Misdemeanor – if you are cited, you could face up to a $1,000 fine or 180 days in the county jail.”

Guerra added that peace officers will be starting with warnings in order to educate those who may not be aware of the curfew, and that other county sheriffs that have already implemented a curfew have seen success with this strategy.

“This is going to take some time for the public to realize the importance of staying home,” Guerra said. “We want to educate them first – that is the message that we’re directing to our officers, to our deputies and to our troopers.”

Eddie Olivarez, the Hidalgo County Chief Administrative Officer for Health and Human Services, and Dr. Ivan Melendez, the designated Health Authority for the county, spoke on the status of testing in the area and what measures need to be taken to mitigate the further spread of COVID-19 in the Valley.

Olivarez explained the criteria for testing to take place, and noted that home isolation keeps the virus at bay overall.

“Both cases that we are reviewing – along with investigation contacts, or anyone who may have been affiliated with them – there is none that require hospitalization,” Cortez said. “They’re all at home in isolation. We have followed through with the people who have been in contact, and we have done some testing with those individuals and issued controlled orders to assure they stay home and follow through on their 14-day isolation and also review with a medical physician to follow their proper medical guidance.”

Melendez said the county had a plan set up even before the cases were confirmed.

“When these cases were announced, it didn’t change our approach to this problem – it just triggered a plan that had already been developed and was in place to go,” Melendez said. “Since these two cases have been identified, it only confirms what we [the medical community] already knew: that there were cases out there, we had just not tested the appropriate people.”

Melendez said the county has recruited local experts who will be addressing more specific medical information with the public. They have also been in communication with all local hospitals to find out what is needed on their front.

Cortez reiterated several times that the emergency orders were being put in place to limit humans from coming in close contact with one another, as the virus is most often spread through human contact.

“We cannot prevent it, it is already here,” Cortez said. “All we can do is manage it. It requires certain action, and this emergency order that we put into the books this morning, is intended to put some temporary controls over our citizens, over our businesses and over even the government itself.”

Last night, the emergency orders were spread online before they had been officially announced by the county. Cortez said it was an innocent mistake of communication.

Everyone is encouraged to stay home if possible, and especially those exhibiting symptoms should call their physicians from home to find out next steps.  The emergency orders, including the list of banned operations and the list of critical infrastructure, are now available at the Hidalgo County website.

 

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