EDINBURG — Local government entities are trying to figure out how to best protect their employees from the novel coronavirus as the number of confirmed cases in Hidalgo County continues to rise.
On Tuesday morning, Hidalgo County officials voted unanimously to suspend normal operations for about a month beginning Monday.
At about the same time, McAllen announced a majority of its city buildings would be closed to walk-in traffic to protect the community, residents and staff.
A few hours later, the county announced three additional cases of COVID-19, bringing the total to 5.
Two of the new cases appear to be travel-related and might be linked to the county’s first confirmed case, a McAllen woman in her 20s who traveled to Las Vegas, county officials said in a news release.
Details about the fifth case were not available as the county continued its preliminary investigation.
It’s still unclear how many of the county’s nearly 3,000 employees will be able to stay home through April 2. Elected officials and department heads are still trying to figure out how many employees must stay on so that the essential functions of county government may continue.
“This is a necessary step to mitigate the spread of coronavirus in Hidalgo County,” County Judge Richard F. Cortez said. “As we continue to say, the best defense against the spread of this highly contagious disease is to stay home.”
County officials are following guidelines provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to assess critical functions and services, including those associated with law enforcement, the health department and emergency management.
Hidalgo County Health and Human Services Chief Operating Officer Eddie Olivarez told commissioners Tuesday there are about 80 people working directly on the local response to the pandemic. They come from a number of different county departments, including legal counsel, the county judge’s office and emergency management.
“There’s a lot of commitment, a lot of hard work,” he said.
Hidalgo County Community Service Agency Executive Director Jaime Longoria said his office purchased 4,000 bags of food from the Rio Grande Valley Food Bank to distribute to the elderly, the disabled and families in need.
In order to identify the most vulnerable, his office used the “most complete and the most readily available” list at their disposal: county tax rolls. From there, they are targeting those who have exemptions for being 65 and older, disabled or own a home valued at less than $50,000.
“We understand that’s not a perfect matrix or filter, but that’s the beginning and that’s why we’re making (4,000) additional bags available to the precincts, so that utilizing their staff, they can use their discretion to distribute those food stores as needed to the most vulnerable families,” Longoria said.
While most city buildings will be closed to walk-in traffic, the lobbies of some buildings which provide essential services are still open and operational, McAllen city officials announced via a news release. .
As such, the McAllen International Airport will remain open despite the fact that the county’s first coronavirus case came through that same facility.
Additionally, Metro McAllen’s Downtown Transit Center will also continue to remain open to the public, though city officials previously said ridership would be halved in order to promote social distancing.
McAllen Public Library, which is not open to the public, also announced an expansion of its virtual services and the addition of a new curbside service called Connect with MPL.
The McAllen Police Department and the McAllen Municipal Court, both housed at the McAllen Public Safety building, will open their shared lobby to only five persons at a time.
“All other City of McAllen services will continue by phone, e-mail, other alternative options and by appointment, subject to approval,” the statement indicated.
Drive-through payments at McAllen City Hall will also continue.
For more information, residents were asked to call McAllen’s 3-1-1 Customer Service Call Center or to follow the city on social media.