A masked shopper leaves after visiting the Alamo Flea Market on Friday in Alamo. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

On any given day between the hours of 7:45 a.m. and 4 p.m., commuters heading west on Expressway 83 in Alamo will catch a glimpse of the bustling Alamo Flea Market, the parking lot filled with cars and the grounds packed with shoppers.

This would be a common sight on any normal occasion, but in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s raised eyebrows among Hidalgo County residents who’ve reached out to county Judge Richard F. Cortez.

During an interview this week with Futuro RGV, Cortez explained that the enforcement of social distancing rules is up to local municipalities.

The judge said all he can do is pass that concern regarding the safety of the establishment to local leaders in the city.

“When I get calls — and I get calls almost daily, complaining about the flea market in Alamo — the only thing that I can do is call the mayor and say, ‘Hey, people are complaining that your flea market is open,’” Cortez said Friday. “It’s been reported back to us that they have actually gone over there. They say, ‘Hey, everybody is wearing a mask, social distancing, so I don’t know what the problem is because everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing.’”

Cortez said that the county is unable to enforce their order because each municipality is a sovereign city. Rules such as social distancing and no gatherings of more than 10 people are up to the city of Alamo to enforce.

Asked about these concerns, Alamo City Manager Robert “Bobby” Salinas reminded that Gov. Greg Abbott allows all retails to be open at 50% capacity.

“In his declaration or executive orders, (flea markets) have not been specifically stated that they must close like he did with the bars,” Salinas said. “In order to close the flea market, it would be very difficult to do that because Gov. Abbott has stated that all retails can remain open at 50%.”

Salinas said that both the police department and the fire department visit the flea market at least twice a week, as well as the county fire marshal, and they have observed that everyone there is in compliance.

“Everyone is wearing masks, they have their separation, so it’s difficult to just tell a property owner that they have to shut down when they are compliant with the minimum requirements,” Salinas said. “We even have where PD is to go out there in plain clothes, and if someone is not wearing their mask, they’ll give them a warning first. If they see the same person again, they’ll give them a ticket.”

The county order does mention flea markets but only asks for compliance with face mask and social distancing requirements.

“It does not specifically state there that they have to shut down,” Salinas said. “I think we’re the ones getting hit by more criticism because the flea market is right off of the expressway, so it’s very visible. You have flea markets in McAllen, Donna, Alton, Mercedes, and I only hear about us. I know some of them are probably closed, but those were voluntarily closed. If the owners wanted to, they could keep them open.”

Visitors and vendors mingle at the Alamo Flea Market on Friday in Alamo. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Another retail that continues to see a high volume of customers is La Plaza Mall in McAllen. Like the Alamo Flea Market, Cortez said that it’s up to the local city government to enforce the rules, which is why it remains open.

“This is why it’s so important for us to work as a community, together,” Cortez said. “This is a monster. We’re going to have over 500 additional positive tests (Friday) and close to 20 fatalities. This thing hasn’t gone away. It’s still a very serious thing. The only way we can beat it is by everybody cooperating.”

Cortez emphasized that he wants businesses to remain open, but he wants to ensure that they are safe for employees and customers.

“If you’re an individual and you have to go out and shop and do different stuff, then put on a mask and take precautions,” Cortez said. “And on social gatherings, if you don’t have to party, then don’t party right now. Why take the risk? I have been home sheltering myself. I’ll leave to go get some food or have a meeting, but I try to stay home as much as possible.

“This thing is still here. It hasn’t gone away. We’re going to have to learn to live in this toxic world that we’re in.”