EDINBURG, TEXAS – Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez says he cannot disagree with Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to exclude the Rio Grande Valley from new orders that expand occupancy levels at retail stores and restaurants. 

On Thursday, Abbott said restaurants, retail stores, office buildings, manufacturing facilities, gyms and exercise facilities and classes, museums, and libraries could expand their occupancy levels to 75 percent. They had been set at 50 percent.

He also allowed hospitals to perform elective surgeries. 

However, three parts of Texas were excluded – the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and Victoria. Abbott said these areas had yet to meet hospitalization metric requirements.

“I cannot object to Governor Abbott’s decision to exclude Hidalgo County from relaxing some of his restrictions,” Judge Cortez said.

“I am encouraged that hospitalization rates locally are falling. But based on the advice of local experts, I have concluded, like the governor, that it may be premature to loosen additional restrictions.”

Cortez said that is why his latest stay-at-home remains in effect until the end of this month. “It gives me time to better assess where we stand in Hidalgo County.”

Cortez is concerned about a recent increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in Hidalgo County. On Thursday, 329 Hidalgo County residents learned they had tested positive for the virus. On Wednesday there were 325 new cases reported. 

“I have been encouraged by the direction of the numbers this week, but this jump in the number of new cases is concerning,” Cortez said. 

“To those currently battling this disease and who are at home, I urge you to remain quarantined so that you may not infect a loved one or anyone in our community.”

On Thursday, Cortez reported 18 deaths due to complications related to COVID-19. On Wednesday there were 20.

“The bottom line is we must remain diligent about the dangers of this virus. And we all should consider any additional deaths from this disease tragic. My condolences go out to the family and friends of these victims.”

The latest case totals bring the count of people in the county who have died from the coronavirus to 1,488. The total number of people who have knowingly contracted the disease in Hidalgo County now stands at 30,375.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a news conference where he provided an update to Texas’ response to COVID-19, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Gov. Abbott held a news conference Thursday about the coronavirus.

He said he was issuing executive orders expanding occupancy levels for restaurants, retail stores, office buildings, manufacturing facilities, gyms and exercise facilities and classes, museums, and libraries, and re-authorizing elective surgeries for a majority of the state of Texas. 

Abbott also announced new guidance related to visitations at nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the state.

Abbott said he wanted reliable, data driven hospitalization metrics used by doctors and medical experts to help guide the state’s ongoing efforts to contain COVID-19 and expand occupancy for businesses and services. 

Abbott said hospitals where 15 percent of all patients have COVID would not be able to enjoy the expand occupancy levels. For this to happen there would have to be seven consecutive days in which the number of COVID-19 hospitalized patients as a percentage of all hospitalized patients was 15 percent or less. 

A current list of areas with high hospitalizations will be maintained at www.dshs.texas.gov/ga3031.

Using this metric, 19 of the 22 TSAs in Texas qualify to increase occupancy levels to 75 percent for restaurants, retail stores, office buildings, manufacturing facilities, gyms, exercise facilities and classes, museums, and libraries beginning September 21st. In addition, these 19 TSAs can also resume elective surgeries,” the Abbott news release stated. 

“Three of the 22 TSAs (Victoria, Laredo, and the Rio Grande Valley) must remain at 50 percent occupancy and continue postponing elective surgeries until the hospitalization metric requirements are met.”

These three TSAs contain the following counties: Calhoun, DeWitt, Goliad, Jackson, Lavaca, Victoria, Jim Hogg, Webb, Zapata, Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy.

“With the medical advancements we have made and the personal hygiene practices we have adopted, Texans have shown that we can address both the health and safety concerns of COVID-19 while also taking careful, measured steps to restore the livelihoods that Texans depend on,” Abbott said.

“Achieving both goals requires safe standards that contain COVID-19, emphasize protecting the most vulnerable, and establish clear metrics that the public can depend on. That is why today we have announced expanded occupancy standards for a variety of services.”

However, Abbott implored Texans remember that a steady and significant decline in COVID-19 cases is “not a sign to let up in our vigilance against the virus.”

Instead, he said, Texans must continue to heed the guidance of medical experts by wearing a mask, social distancing, and practicing proper sanitation strategies. 

“By maintaining health and safety standards that are proven to mitigate COVID-19, we can continue to slow the spread while opening up the Texas economy,” Abbott added.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling also commented on Gov. Abbott’s new orders.

“We are at 18 percent so we did not qualify for going to 75 percent,” Darling told the McAllen Economic Development Corporation board of directors. “We talked to some restaurants. It is not that huge of a deal since they have a pretty robust take out service.”

Darling said hospitalizations have gone down in the McAllen area. “Our biggest problem is our death rate. This has not gone down significantly,” he said.

The Texas Public Interest Research Group disagreed with Abbott’s decision to open up the economy further.

The nonprofit noted a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which found that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were about twice as likely to have eaten at a restaurant in the two weeks prior to getting sick. 

“Some of the top economists in Texas, and across the country, have told Governor Abbott in no uncertain terms that the economy will not recover until he gets the virus under control,” said TexPIRG Director Bay Scoggin.

“Yet, the governor is loosening restrictions while COVID-19 cases are still well above the levels that health professionals deem safe for reopening.”

Scoggin said lifting restrictions too soon, especially in high-risk settings for spreading the virus like indoor dining, will prolong economic damage and risk lives unnecessarily.

“Instead of reopening prematurely, Governor Abbott should unleash the resources necessary to ramp up testing so that we can return to some semblance of normalcy safely.”

The Texas Bar and Nightlife Alliance is also upset with Abbott’s new guidelines – for omitting bars.

“Governor Abbott’s actions today are unacceptable. At his hand alone, bar owners are having their livelihoods destroyed and are losing everything without being given a chance at reopening in a safe and responsible manner,” said Michael Klein, founder and president of the Texas Bar and Nightlife Alliance (TBNA).

“By his own admission, different regions of the state should be treated differently based on their current battle against COVID-19, yet bars are shut down everywhere regardless of the local data.”

Klein said it is “absolutely ridiculous” that a bar that serves ‘enough’ food is now allowed to open to 75 percent capacity, but regular neighborhood bars without the means to obtain new government permits or offer food items cannot open their doors at all.

“For months, we’ve been told that Anti-Business Abbott needs to see sustained positivity rates below 10 percent and improvements on hospitalizations for bars to be given a chance at reopening. Texas delivered. But he has not acted on this promise and it is a death sentence for thousands of small businesses.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez.


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