MCALLEN, Texas – McAllen Mayor Jim Darling is not optimistic that the federal government will reopen land ports of entry to Mexican tourists and shoppers this month.

With the holiday season just around the corner, the owners of shopping malls, restaurants and hotels along the border are hoping that a ban imposed on “non-essential” travel that is slated to run out on Oct. 20 is not extended.

The restrictions on Mexican visa holders was imposed in late March in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Darling spoke about the travel ban in a report to the McAllen Economic Development Corporation’s board of directors on Thursday.

“We have been trying to get them to lift the non-essential travel order from the White House. It happens on the 20th of every month. So, it will be coming up pretty soon,” Darling said. 

“We don’t anticipate the White House backing off on it. Senator Cornyn has been supportive of opening up the border to non-essential travel. Congressman Cuellar has actually been pretty active on it.”

Darling’s pessimism contrasts with that of Congressman Henry Cuellar. The Laredo Democrat has devised a plan with Customs & Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan to reopen land ports of entry to “non-essential travel.”

Such a category includes border residents wishing to cross the border in order to see their family members, shoppers and tourists. 

Under the Cuellar-Morgan plan, CBP and the local municipality that owns the land port would each conduct health screenings. Visitors not displaying the symptoms of COVID-19 would be allowed through. Each municipality would decide if it wants to reopen its land port. Cuellar calls this “local control.”

Darling’s pessimism is based in part on his involvement with a national advisory panel.

“I am on an inter-governmental affairs committee with the White House. There is not much action there at all. Several of the large cities, including, Brownsville, at least tentatively, and for sure, El Paso, oppose opening up the border to non-essential traffic.,” Darling said.

“I was on a large city mayors call trying to get the mayors of Dallas and Houston on our side because Texas has been relatively neutral. But then the mayor of El Paso was on there and so we are going to have trouble, I think, as long as some of the border cities, there’s only about eight of us, actually oppose opening up the border.”

Darling added: “I think that gives Washington an excuse to not open, since we cannot agree as border mayors.”

El Paso has seen a surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks. On Thursday, El Paso County Judge Ricardo A. Samaniego said he supported a local lockdown.

“Other communities across the nation have successfully worked towards the further reopening of their economy, but that has not been the case here in El Paso,” Samaniego said. 

“Our community is at a crossroads and the only path forward is to work together in order to slow the spread of the virus.  We saw record high numbers today and because of this I agree with Mayor Margo to implement further restrictions throughout the County.”

Dee Margo is the mayor of El Paso.

McAllen’s superintendent of bridges, Juan Olaguibel, also gave a report to the MEDC board. 

“Adding to what Mayor Darling stated earlier, non-essential travel restrictions are still in effect, and will not expire until Wednesday, Oct. 21,” Olaguibel said. 

The superintendent then ran through the impact the ban on “non-essential” travel has had on the two bridges the City of McAllen co-owns – Hidalgo International Bridge and Anzalduas International Bridge.

“Compared to last year’s numbers, September at Hidalgo we had 95,000 vehicles crossing southbound, which was 113,000 less than last year. And at Anzalduas we saw 47,000 vehicles crossing southbound, which was approximately 27,000 less vehicles from last year.”

Olaguibel then spoke about a private meeting he and other local stakeholders had with Congressman Cuellar earlier this week.

“This past Tuesday Congressman Cuellar held a meeting in which he summarized the measures that he has proposed to the federal government to reopen travel across land ports of entry,” Olaguibel said.

“Congressman Cuellar’s main point was to allow border cities to do their own health screenings on travelers as they see fit. So he thinks that restrictions will be lifted but he’s not 100 percent sure if October 21 is the day that they will happen. There is a lot of chatter online but not everything is true.”

In his report to MEDC, Mayor Darling also spoke about how the coronavirus is impacting the City of McAllen. He pointed out that the rate of COVID-related hospitalizations has been going down in the Rio Grande Valley, thereby allowing local cities and counties to re-open bars, should they wish. McAllen, along with Hidalgo County has decided against this.

“We were on the governor’s list of not being able to open up until we got below 15 percent of capacity between COVID and hospital beds. We are now about 13 percent so we got the letter last week. We had to have seven days in a row, so we accomplished that. So, we are open but we are not out of the woods yet.”

Darling said if a county has seven days where the number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 is 15 percent or above, it could be forced to lock down again. If this happens, it could trigger an order limiting restaurants and other retail establishments to no more than 50 percent capacity.

“Based on that (getting below the 15 percent threshold), the governor opened up the bars, but subject to the county. And so, Hidalgo County was not going to do that. But, Judge Cortez left it up to the individual cities. We decided not to do that in McAllen because we are so close to the number (15). If we go over the number it affects everybody, businesses, restaurants, everybody. So, we will keep our head down and hopefully everybody will stay safe. If we get down to around ten percent, and are able to maintain that for seven days or so, we will talk about that.”

Richard Cortez in Hidalgo county judge.

Darling also reported that the McAllen Convention Center is still equipped to be a COVID-19 field hospital. However, it is not currently manned. “The convention center is equipped. It is not staffed. They call it warm. They will probably keep it until we get below ten percent for a solid period of time.”

Darling noted that the coronavirus had impacted deliberations on a new City of McAllen budget.

“We passed our city budget. It is a relatively lean budget. What we did… our last fiscal year was six months of really, really good returns and then six months of terrible returns. And so this budget is kind of based on last year,” Darling said.

“We are going to have to watch it, month to month. Because if we go six months with the continued low tax collections, etc., low bridge collections, we are going to have start making adjustments because we are not going to do as well as we did last year. We will have a whole year of low activity.”

Darling said he has explained the situation to the MEDC leadership, along with that of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.

“We told everybody, including the Chamber and MEDC to look at their budgets. Hopefully we won’t have to make adjustments but if we do we will have do that for everybody.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Juan Olaguibel, superintendent of bridges for the City of McAllen.

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