South Texas county judges hold rare joint news conference to show united front on COVID-19

Local News

WESLACO, Texas (Border Report) — Four South Texas county judges expressed their frustration with fighting the coronavirus pandemic on the border and the long-term economic impact it is having on their communities.

In a rare joint news conference, all four leaders — Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez; Starr County Judge Eloy Vera; Willacy County Judge Aurelio “Keter” Guerra; and Cameron County Eddie Treviño Jr. — made clear the unique challenges facing the border region during this COVID-19 crisis. They also mentioned how federal funding to fight the virus will most likely be tied to census results, likely impacting smaller communities going forward.

Four judges from South Texas held a news conference on Thursday, June 11, 2020, in Weslaco, Texas, midway distance for these four counties. From left to right: Starr County Judge Eloy Vera; Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez; Cameron County Eddie Treviño Jr., and Willacy County Judge Aurelio “Keter” Guerra. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“When the governor took away our ability to manage ourselves locally and opened up the economy, as well as ordered more testing, we knew that the number of infections would rise. We also were concerned these restrictions were having a negative impact on our local economy,” Cortez said. “Quite honestly, I don’t want to blame the governor. I don’t want to blame anybody because we know what to do to stop this trend of cases.”

Quite honestly I don’t want to blame the governor. I don’t want to blame anybody because we know what to do to stop this trend of cases.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez

“We made a huge announcement today. We have four county judges from this area basically telling our communities we have a serious problem and everyone needs to pay attention to it and it’s not going to go away,” Cortez said. “As the restrictions that were in place in each of our counties were eased by the governor, that also is a possible cause of this increase. What concerns us now is that the community is not taking responsibility for themselves.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, right, looks on June 11, 2020, at a news conference as Starr County Judge Eloy Vera talks about spiking COVID-19 cases in his small rural county. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Cortez announced that Hidalgo County today had 70 new cases — nearly double the single-day high of coronavirus cases confirmed in the county so far. The total number of cases is now at 912 with 12 deaths. Cortez added that hospital beds are quickly filling up and healthcare officials are concerned that this spike in cases will result in a shortage of treatment available for the sick. Thursday marked a record-high in hospital admissions with 2,153, “nearly triple what it was two weeks ago,” he said.

Treviño said that Cameron County has had 42 deaths and is troubled by three nursing-home “hot spots,” which account for 28 COVID-related deaths — more than half of all deaths in the Gulf Coast county of 458,000 residents. The total number of infections at the nursing homes account for 214 of the county’s total 990 cases. And with a shrug, he said, I “fully expect we exceed 1,000 cases today.”

“As soon as the governor opened it up … I felt it was too quick and too much,” Vera said. Starr County suffered its first death recently and is up to about 70 cases, much higher than the single-digits that rural county of 61,000 had experienced for the first two months of the pandemic.

Willacy County Judge Aurelio “Keter” Guerra is seen at a news conference on June 11, 2020 in Weslaco, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Even Willacy County, with only 21,000 residents, is up to 46 cases — “triple what we were at two weeks ago,” Guerra said.

“We need to do everything we can possibly going forward,” Treviño said. “That’s why me and the other county leaders and elected officials in the Rio Grande Valley have been adamant and advising and recommending and mandating that each of you do your part.”

But these leaders openly expressed that they can no longer mandate several measures that they would like — such as requiring facial masks to be worn and maintaining stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders — because Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening of the state supersedes their authority.

“Any order of ours that was in conflict with the state would be null and void and not in effect,” Treviño said. “Maybe they’ll make some of these mandates that we had in place. Mandate them again. Mandate the wearing of facial coverings, social distancing and maybe pull back just a little bit, not necessarily on the economy side but have everybody take a little bit more responsibility for their own action.”

But Treviño’s comments come on the same week that he announced that as chairman of the Texas Border Coalition he sent a letter to Homeland Security Acting Commissioner Chad Wolf asking for border restrictions to be lifted at land ports of entry, namely those in the Rio Grande Valley. The coalition is urging restrictions lifted by July 22. Currently, only “essential” workers who are not U.S. citizens are allowed to enter at U.S. ports.

Read a Border Report story on Treviño’s letter sent to Wolf.

When asked by Border Report if that is in direct conflict to his request for residents to stay at home and not go out, he said it does not.

“No not at all. What we need to do is have people be responsible and also have a sense of fairness. The entire state of Texas. The rest of the country is opening up for business. The uniqueness of the border community is that we live and rely on one another on both sides of the border,” Treviño said. “What’s not been allowed is for the Mexican national with a tourist card or crossing card to come over and spend their money.”

Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr., is seen on June 11, 2020, during a news conference with three other county judges in Weslaco, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

But as Mexico suffers day after day of increasing cases of coronavirus cases, it is uncertain how inviting Mexican nationals to come across the border will not bring with it cases of the deadly virus.

Health Secretary Gloria Molina Gamboa of the northern Mexican border state of Tamaulipas on Wednesday reported 72 more cases of COVID-19 and two deaths. This included five cases in Matamoros, across from the Cameron County town of Brownsville, Texas; and 27 new cases in Reynosa, Mexico, across from Hidalgo County’s largest city of McAllen.

Asked whether the land ports of entry should fully open to all travel, Cortez responded: “What I would ask the president is to pay attention of the necessity and the importance that our trade with Mexico has to the overall economy with the United States,” Cortez said. “We just shouldn’t arbitrarily pick a date. We should let science dictate.”

Visit the BorderReport.com homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.

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