Safety of Starr County citizens prioritized over reopening of international bridges

Despite missing out on billions of dollars from travel related revenues from shoppers crossing the border to come to the area, Starr County leaders are saying they want to reopen their international bridges to Mexican shoppers and tourists.

But, with COVID-19 still a threat, bridges must be cautiously reopened, leaders agreed.

That was the message Starr County officials shared in a Tuesday press conference to discuss the reopening of the international bridges for non-essential travel. The county’s two international bridges have been closed to “non-essential” vehicular and pedestrian traffic since late March in order to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“The health issue has to play foremost in my mind, to keep our community as safe as we possibly can. However, we do need to open up our ports sooner or later,” Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said Tuesday. “My thing is the safety and wellbeing of our community has to come first. So, our decision will be based on that. But I assure you the ports will be open at some point.”

The Tuesday press conference was hosted by Congressman Henry Cuellar who recently sent a letter to acting United States Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf  urging the department to establish and implement a community-based program to partially lift COVID-19 travel restrictions for “non-essential” travelers at land ports of entry.

The policy to keep international bridges closed for non-essential travel is set to expire on Wednesday, Oct. 21.

“But they can choose to extend that policy which I hope they don’t. The months of November and December are important for a lot of border communities,” Cuellar said, referring to the number of international shoppers. “At one point 18 million shoppers came to the area and generated $19 billion. That’s over $1 billion every month.”

In his letter, Cuellar said international bridges should reopen and provide health screenings and rapid COVID-19 tests to those who cross. It would be up to individual municipalities, and a partnership with U.S. customs and Border Protection, to decide if international bridges should reopen under this plan.

“Cities don’t have to do it, especially if they don’t have the money for it,” Cuellar said. “They would have complete local control over it.”

Vela said the funds for the provisions in Cuellar’s plan would be an issue.

Last May, the county received $1.8 million from the state in COVID-19 relief funds and has so far spent 20% of the funds, Vela said. 

“We could use some of that money for providing rapid testing at the bridges but how long would it take to get reimbursed,” Vela asked. “Are we going to fund this for one month or six months or more?”

So far, the county has submitted the $400,000 in reimbursements from the state in COVID-19 related spending and is still waiting on reimbursement. Rio Grande City Mayor Joe Villarreal said the local output would be important in making the decision to reopen international bridges.

“I am glad that we are now at this point where we can have that conversation because, to be frank with, a few months ago or a few weeks ago, I would not even venture to begin having a conversation about this,” Villarreal said. “Now that we are in a much better place, we can begin that conversation and certainly start planning for this.”

Starr County Industrial Foundation Chairman Sam Vale noted that despite a loss in tourism, sales tax revenues have been increasing in the county and commercial traffic in international bridges have been holding steady.

Communities, he said, must be responsible for ensuring they remain safe from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“But it is in your hands now, Starr County and the cities, all of them, to decide how you are going to go about helping to protect people that keeps business functioning. Because, like it or not, health is the most important thing. Because you need people to be in your community. But they need jobs, they need income, they need to pay their bills and that means we are going to have to learn to survive in some way until this pandemic is over with and that is speculative, as to when it is going to be.”

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