As many counties across the state consider the benefits of reopening local bars, Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez has said he is recommending they remain closed.
During a Wednesday news conference, state Gov. Greg Abbott announced bars could reopen for the first time in months as early as Monday at a 50% percent occupancy rate.
However, county judges at the local level are to decide whether to reopen bars.
Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez has yet to decide on the reopening of local bars.
“He is still consulting with local officials and health experts,” county spokesman Carlos Sanchez said Friday. “We anticipate new orders and a press release early next week.”
Among the health experts Cortez has consulted with is Dr. Melendez who said a potential increase of COVID-19 cases is among the reasons he recommended bars remain closed.
“I expect our numbers to increase based on a number of factors,” Melendez said. “There’s so many factors in the models I’ve looked at that tell me I expect an increase in cases by early December.”
Among these factors Melendez said could potentially lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases include the opening up of schools and the start of their athletic season, holidays such as Halloween and Christmas, the potential return of Winter Texans and a higher occupancy for businesses and restaurants.
“Do I think these new cases will get as bad as July? No. Could it be as high? Absolutely,” Melendez said, “Other countries in the world have gone through what we’ve gone through and have had an increase in the amount of cases, some of which are as high as the first peaks they faced.”
Bars closed months ago to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 which at its peak hospitalized 1,080 people in late July.
Though weekend numbers weren’t available from the county health department, the county reported 17 deaths on Friday and 204 new cases, totaling 1,841 deaths and 33,352 known COVID-19 cases in Hidalgo County alone. 188 people were in area hospitals to be treated with COCID-19 related complications Friday.
“We’re still seeing deaths in the double digits and a high number of COVID hospitalizations,” Melendez said Friday. “We’re still admitting COVID-19 patients into the hospitals daily and last month I advised school districts to continue delaying the start of in-person learning. How can I advise schools to not reopen but allow bars to do so?”
Since the pandemic forced bars to shutter their doors, many of them converted to restaurants to no longer be classified as primarily bars to remain open. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission rules a business as a bar if 51 percent of its revenues come from alcohol sales, Melendez said.
“People can bend the rules, it’s why bars can start selling chicken wings to become a restaurant,” Melendez said, adding that it’s safer to go to restaurants than a bar.
“People go to restaurants to eat in a family friendly atmosphere. People go to bars to socialize and consume something that impairs your judgement,” Melendez said. “In places where there’s a jump in COVID-19 cases, one of the most common clusters infectious activities is bars. A lot of the explosions in growth around the world have come from bars reopening. My advice has been for them to not reopen them at any occupancy percentage.”
Though there is talk of a vaccine being developed to help the spread of the disease, Melendez said ultimately, COVID-19 is here to stay.
“It’s not over till it’s over even when we have a vaccine and a cure,” Melendez said. “Once these diseases are in the global population, they’re staying.”