County reviewing virus options; Rising cases may prompt more mandates

Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. said the county’s legal department is reviewing other ways the county might implement and enforce additional mandates to curb the spread of COVID-19 without running afoul of the governor’s order that took effect May 1 and superseded all local mandates, including the county’s orders for residents to wear masks in public, practice social distancing and limit travel to essential business.

Those and other restrictions are credited with keeping the number of infections low in the county, though since the state began reopening last month per Gov. Greg Abbott’s phased plan, and local governments were no long able to mandate precautions, the number of COVID-19 cases in the county has soared, especially in the last few weeks.

Local governments discovered a little wiggle room last week, when Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff on June 17 signed an order mandating that all businesses in that county require employees and customers to wear masks or other facial coverings while on the premises. Although the governor’s order had removed the authority of local governments to enforce mask wearing, it signaled that it would not oppose Wolff’s order, taking the position that it’s OK for governments to force restaurants to require employees and customers to wear masks, though if governments try to impose such mandates directly on the population it constitutes an attack on liberty.

Abbott said his order never prohibited governments from imposing mask mandates on businesses and that the counties had finally caught on. Treviño and Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez issued mask orders on June 17 immediately after learning of Wolff’s action. Treviño said the county is now looking for other mandate loopholes it could exploit if necessary to get the county’s spiraling COVID-19 numbers under control.

“First of all, I don’t want it to be a hidden loophole,” he said. “If there’s something we can agree on, on the local and state level, then we ought to be able to get that clarified right away. The spike that we’ve seen, it is concerning. Do we have to go back and implement some of the things such as closure of the beaches, things of that nature? I don’t want to do it, but that’s certainly something that we’re willing to consider.”

Treviño made the comments during a June 22 press conference, where he made a direct appeal to county residents to re-adopt the best practices that kept the virus under control for months, now that new infections are rising alarmingly, even if the county lacks the mandate and enforcement power it had before Abbott’s order.

“You do care about yourself and your own life,” Treviño said. “This is not a political issue. It’s not even a social issue. This is an issue of public health and safety, and if you care about your own life, and that of your family, your children, your parents, your grandparents, your co-workers, your neighbors, we’re asking you to please wear a mask when you’re out of the house. This is a situation, a crisis, that we’ve never found ourselves in. It is only going to slow down — it won’t go away — if each of us does our part. If you care about this community, if you care about your family, please, as an example of support and respect for those around you, wear your mask.

“If people want to get back to normal, I completely understand that,” he said. “So do these things for us so that you’re protecting yourselves and protecting others. We don’t want to overtax our doctors, our nurses, our hospital staff. We don’t want to overtax the ICU capabilities. We want to make sure that there’s beds available for people who get sick.”

Asked whether the county had the authority to reimpose restrictions in light of the governor’s order, Treviño said it could become imperative if COVID-19 numbers continue to rise at the current rate. On June 22 the county reported 101 more confirmed cases of the virus, bringing the total to 1,647, with 1,002 recoveries. The county also reported its 49th death from COVID-19, an 88-year-old male who had been a resident of Spanish Meadows of Brownsville nursing home.

“It may get to the point where I think, and I don’t necessarily just speak for myself, but I think a lot of local county judges and mayors are getting to the point where they feel (either) we’re working together in concert with the state, or we’ll have to do it like we did at the very beginning, which is act on our own,” he said. “It wasn’t an issue in the beginning. This should not be and in my opinion is not a political issue.”

Treviño said local leaders are “tasked with taking care of the people we represent” and that reopening the economy versus protecting people from the virus shouldn’t be an either-or choice.

“This is a public health crisis, one that we’ve never seen in our lifetimes,” he said. “We’re definitely reviewing what’s available and what to consider down the road. I hope people will just do these things that we’re asking.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com