Less than a week after the Weslaco City Commission approved holding a Fourth of July fireworks display at a park that would be closed to the public during the event, city leaders reversed course and have instead canceled the holiday display.
The decision came via a split 4-3 decision during a special meeting of the commission Monday evening.
At the heart of the decision were concerns over the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the potential burdens the event would place on the first responders tasked with maintaining public safety.
Last Tuesday, the commission voted 3-2 to approve holding the fireworks display at Harlon Block Park on Weslaco’s south side. Commissioners Gregory Kerr, Leo Muñoz and Adrian Farias voted to hold the event, while Mayor David Suarez and Commissioner Letty Lopez voted against it.
Commissioners Jose “J.P.” Rodriguez and Joshua Pedraza did not attend the meeting.
The spacious park, with its limited one-way access to vehicular traffic, would have been closed to both vehicles and pedestrians. In the wake of the pandemic, the city hoped residents would instead view the display from the safety of their homes — at least those residents whose homes afford such a view.
But safety concerns lingered among some members of the commission, who feared the event would nonetheless entice spectators to congregate with no regard for social distancing along the narrow streets surrounding the park.
Residents, too, raised alarms on social media that the event would serve to promote the spread of the pernicious disease at a time when local cases are skyrocketing and doctors from around the Rio Grande Valley have begun sounding an urgent alarm about quickly dwindling hospital capacity.
On Tuesday, Hidalgo County reported two additional coronavirus fatalities, as well as the largest single-day increase in new COVID-19 cases since reporting began: 248. Thirteen of those were reported in Weslaco.
“Entertainment is always supposed to take a back seat to safety,” said Commissioner Rodriguez during Monday’s special meeting, which took place virtually via Zoom.
As a career law enforcement officer, Rodriguez’s concerns about the event were twofold: that the event would serve to exacerbate the spread of the virus from people congregating just outside the park, and that this would then force police into negative interactions with the public at a time when police forces across the country are under scrutiny for excessive force and police brutality.
“If you believe that … there’s not gonna be complacency or noncompliance for this event, then that’s a very unrealistic opinion of what actually will transpire out in the field between our first responders and people out in the field,” Rodriguez said in response to Commissioner Muñoz, who asked Rodriguez to identify a single other public event that had led to public safety issues.
“I know that we’re gonna task our police officers to go and move people along, or we’re gonna have families that we’re gonna force to leave the park. That’s not a good interaction between our law enforcement officers and the public that we serve right now,” Rodriguez said.
Earlier in the meeting, Commissioner Pedraza had compared the decision to cancel the display to being a parent.
“I liken this to parenting. There’s some times we have to say to our kiddos, right? They may not understand just right now, but in the long run, we mean well,” Pedraza said, adding that residents had elected them to lead and make tough decisions.
“We were elected to be leaders, I agree with you on that; but, we were not elected to be parents,” Commissioner Kerr replied.
On Sunday, Kerr took to Facebook to air his vociferous disagreement with the idea of canceling the Independence Day display.
“At a time when our men and women in uniform are blatantly disrespected by celebrities and superstar athletes kneeling during our country’s anthem, when our police men and women are under attack for performing the duties of protecting and serving us, and when it has become unpopular to take pride in our great nation, it is important now more than ever to celebrate our freedom and independence,” Kerr wrote.
He further stated that a “vocal minority” wanted to cancel the display due to a “fear (that) is irrational and misplaced.”
But Rodriguez raised another concern regarding first responders: staffing issues.
Rodriguez revealed Monday that some two dozen of the city’s first responders are currently unable to report for duty due to coronavirus concerns.
Police Chief Joel Rivera and Fire Chief Antonio Lopez confirmed the numbers Tuesday.
Nine police officers had been ordered to stay in isolation pending COVID-19 test results as of Monday, Rivera said. By Tuesday, three had been medically cleared.
The chief also confirmed that one police officer had tested positive for the virus in recent weeks, but has since recovered.
In the fire department, where personnel also serve as paramedics, some 16 of the department’s 71 employees are currently in home isolation. Those staffers were sent home as a precaution after one firefighter tested positive, Lopez said.
The group has thus far tested negative via a 15-minute rapid test, and are still awaiting confirmation of their negative results via the more reliable PCR nasal swab test, Lopez said.
In the end, those who were initially in favor of holding the fireworks display remained unswayed by the various concerns, which also included worries that the event would create “traffic chaos” and would draw spectators from outside the city.
When called to vote, Commissioners Rodriguez and Pedraza joined the mayor and Lopez in voting to rescind approval of the event. Commissioners Kerr, Muñoz and Farias voted against the rescission.