Willacy officials: game rooms complying with COVID-19 orders

Residents concerned eight-liners not taking steps to curb spread of virus

SEBASTIAN — For years, residents have worried the area’s eight-liner game rooms were breaking the law, bringing organized crime into this farming community some dub “little Las Vegas.”

Now, they fear the game rooms aren’t complying with Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19.

“The big concern is the COVID,” resident Joe Salinas said Monday.

About two months ago, Abbott allowed the state’s eight-liner arcades to reopen at 50 percent capacity, ordering the game rooms take players’ temperatures to check for virus symptoms.

Meanwhile, state orders also mandate the game rooms maintain six-foot distances between players, whom county officials require wear facial coverings to prevent the spread of the virus.

“The parking lots are full all the time,” Salinas, a radio station technical director, said. “It certainly looks like more than 50-percent capacity. Who’s really watching or monitoring them?”

Across Willacy County, officials share many of those concerns.

“We’ve talked about whether they are abiding by the capacity order — they can only be at 50 percent — whether they’re wearing facial coverings, if they’re practicing social distancing and if they’re checking their customers’ temperatures as they walk in,” Raymondville Mayor Gilbert Gonzales said, noting the city’s tough new ordinance has driven game rooms out-of-town there.

“It’s pretty hard to be social distancing when you go in there with your compadre and your comadre ,” he said.

Lawmen inspecting game rooms

At the Willacy County Sheriff’s Department, Maj. Andres Maldonado said he’s been looking into residents’ concerns, inspecting game rooms in Sebastian and other communities within the county’s vast unincorporated areas.

“We’re doing random checks,” he said. “So far, they’re complying.”

Meanwhile, Lyford Police Chief Armin Martinez said he’s been inspecting the city’s game rooms to make sure they’re complying with Abbott’s order.

“I can see where they’re coming from — the parking lots look like they’ve got a lot of people,” he said, referring to residents’ concerns.

Martinez said the city’s game rooms are setting up players’ chairs and eight-liner machines to comply with the six-foot social distancing requirement.

“We have done inspections — they are complying,” he said. “They are keeping distances — I believe they’re more than six feet apart. They have personnel doing temperature checks as people walk in. They are sanitizing their stations.”

Fear players might bring virus to town

Across much of Willacy County, now the steady flow of players from outside the county sparks concerns they might be bringing more than cash into the area’s rural communities.

“I’ve heard some complaints that people from all over the Valley are coming,” Gonzales said, noting the numbers of coronavirus cases are far higher in neighboring counties.

“We’re getting people from all over the Valley. People from other counties come over here, and they have a lot more positive cases in Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr,” he said, expressing concern infected players might not be displaying symptoms. “You know, if somebody is asymptomatic they’re going to be passing it on.”

Fear fueling rumors

In Lyford, Martinez said he’s been checking out widespread rumors buzzing across Facebook pages, such as tales about a game room operating with infected employees.

After an investigation, he found the game rooms’ employees weren’t infected, he said.

“There are a lot of rumors going on social media so we go to assure the public,” Martinez said. “We show up randomly. From everything we have seen, they’re in compliance.”

fdelvalle@valleystar.com