EDINBURG, TEXAS – Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez says he has been “overwhelmed” with calls from families who have lost a loved one to COVID and who need money to help defray the cost of a funeral.

Hidalgo County recently set up what it calls a Condolence Fund for just such a purpose.

The county has had 911 fatalities related to COVID-19, making it a national hotspot for the coronavirus.

“Because, unfortunately, we have had so many fatalities we came up what we call a Condolences Fund. This is to help people that really can’t afford to pay for the funerals of the loved ones that they have lost, with $2,000 to do that,” Cortez said.

“I am going to tell you that I thought we would be overwhelmed with calls for the business loans. I thought we were going to be overwhelmed with the calls for the rental and mortgage assistance programs. Well, guess where we are being overwhelmed with calls? This is the on the condolences funds that we have. That is how desperate some of the people are.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez

Cortez made these remarks during a webinar Thursday hosted by the RGV Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The four county judges in the Rio Grande Valley were the special guests. The moderator was Richard Sanchez, associate vice president at UT-Rio Grande Valley and vice-chair of governmental affairs for the chamber.

In his remarks, Cortez spoke about how Hidalgo County has allocated the $151.6 million it received directly from the federal government under the CARES Act. Cortez said $71.2 million was sent to the 22 municipalities in the county. He noted that those 22 municipalities comprise 70 to 75 percent of the county’s population.

Cortez said there was a “very spirited debate” on how to allocate the funds. “We felt we could trust the judgement of the cities,” he said.

Cortez said he made sure Hidalgo County kept back about ten percent of the funds, $15 million, for an emergency. He said this savings account came in useful when the number of COVID cases flared up.

“We saw a tremendous increase in fatalities, a tremendous increase in people testing positive. Our hospitals were beginning to be overwhelmed,” Cortez said. “So, out of the $15 million that we put aside for an unknown or unforeseen problem, we have already allocated $7.5 millions to hospitals on a formula basis, to give the hospitals the capacity to serve the people in our area.”

The balance, $27.8 million, went to the rural areas, Cortez said, with $7.5 million set aside to help pay the rent or mortgage for those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

The county also set aside $4.2 million in grants to help rural businesses. He said qualifying business owners could get between $5,000 and $10,000.

Later, Cortez said, the county was notified by school district superintendents that because of COVID, in-person tuition was not possible. Students in rural areas would have to do distance learning, they told him. Cortez noted that a lack of broadband is a a problem throughout the US. 

“We allocated $16 million to partner with cities and school districts to try to expand broadband in our county so that we could help our students that did not have, be able to have distance learning.”

Cortez said about 74 percent of the money earned by those living in rural areas goes to housing and transportation. He also noted that telemedicine is becoming more important for people in rural areas. “We felt the benefits of having that (broadband in rural areas) was worth making the investment.”

This left $37 million. Cortez said because the county is mandated to provide a judicial system, a jail, a healthcare department, and an emergency management department, commissioners wanted to make sure they had sufficient funds to prepare the county for the pandemic. So, money was spent on PPE, testing, laboratories, and a morgue. 

Cortez said it was important Hidalgo County had the necessary resources to help those departments that provide essential services.

Cortez concluded his remarks by saying Hidalgo County was luckier than neighboring counties in that it received funds directly from the federal government

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows a funeral for a person who died of COVID-19. The photo by Ilana Panich-Linsman for The Washington Post was included in a story about Rivera Funeral Homes in McAllen. Rivera Funeral Homes blocked off and limited visitation at the funeral because of the virus. Aaron Rivera told WAPO that his phone has been ringing off the hook at Rivera Funeral Home in McAllen.

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