Police officers and sheriff’s deputies across Hidalgo County ramped up enforcement of regulations intended to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus Wednesday as the total number of confirmed cases in the Rio Grande Valley breached 100.
In response to the virus’ spread, gatherings of more than 10 have been prohibited, a shelter-in-place order has been instituted and a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew set.
Residents with essential jobs or those who need to leave their home to visit a doctor or get necessary supplies may do so; those who leave their homes for any other purpose could face a fine of up to $1,000 or 180 days in jail.
Some police departments have implemented temporary checkpoints to ensure travelers are bound for an essential task or errand, among them the Palmview, Edcouch and Peñitas police departments.
The city of Weslaco announced Wednesday that no more than two individuals per group or vehicle may enter or travel to and from any business at any given time, while the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office announced that it would be enforcing the county’s previously standing coronavirus rules more strictly.
“The deputies are going to be more vigilant in their traffic enforcement out in the county. We have been issuing warnings to those individuals we have been getting calls for service on,” he said. “We’re going to start issuing citations to those that violate the court order.”
Guerra said his office is enforcing those rules more strictly based on reports from deputies, county and municipal elected officials, and the business community.
“It’s just hard to judge, there’s no metrics. It’s something unprecedented, we haven’t dealt with anything like this before,” he said. “The only way that we can combat this problem is for people to stay away from people.”
For now, the sheriff’s office will not be setting up any checkpoints.
“That is something that we will probably escalate to if this doesn’t work,” Guerra said. “Most of the traveling is located more in the populated areas of the county, more in the cities, so setting up checkpoints in the rural areas wouldn’t really be effective for us. If we do something, we might partner with some of the municipalities here.”
According to Guerra, the more stringent enforcement will particularly apply to the mass gathering rule, which has been a problem in the countryside.
“We have been called for some mass gatherings that are still not abiding by the order, down here they’re called pachangas, outdoor barbecues, so it’s those types of incidents that we see out in the county,” he said.
Guerra also encouraged residents to adhere to social distancing and self-isolation as well as possible, even if they’re traveling on an essential errand.
“We’re looking at why are family members all going to the grocery store; family members should be staying home and only one individual should be going to the grocery store,” he said.
While people traveling to the grocery store or some other essential business don’t need any paperwork, Guerra encouraged them to travel during normal business hours. Employees deemed essential should carry documents from their employers.
“There’s still a lot of businesses out there that are deemed essential,” he said. “We encourage the employers to give documents to individuals who are employed by those businesses that are deemed essential businesses, but be mindful that those letters are only valid for employees traveling to and from work.”
Guerra said that ag-related travel is also permissible.
“One of the biggest questions is, ‘Can I go check my cattle? Can I go check my farm?’” he said. “That is all allowable. You can do that, but we ask that you do it during normal business hours and just go and come back. If you travel to another county, we ask that you go over there, travel and come back; do not make contact with anybody else, and if you do, practice your social distancing.”
Other police departments have implemented checkpoints, where face mask clad officers ask where you’re going and what your business is. So far, the municipal checkpoints have been erected at different times and on different thoroughfares.
The city of Edcouch is among those and has arrested three people due to coronavirus violations, according to City Manager Victor Hugo de la Cruz.
“In the evenings is when I’ve seen a little bit more of the citations. We have arrested some people. We call them the repeat offenders,” he said.
De la Cruz said he believes the checkpoints are a necessary step to combat COVID-19.
“We are gonna get through this and I know that we are because we are implementing these types of changes,” he said. “I really don’t think that we’re ever gonna be the same again, but I think it’s gonna be for the better.”
The city of Palmview rolled out its emergency order verification checkpoints Tuesday evening.
According to Palmview City Attorney Eric D. Flores, the sole purpose of the checkpoints is to keep the city coronavirus-free and to enforce regulation compliance.
“The way the checkpoints are being facilitated right now, the driver comes to the checkpoint, the officer just asks them, ‘Are you in compliance or do you know of the standing orders of the county and the city?” he said. “If they say yes, then typically they’ll follow up with ‘I’m an essential employee, I’m headed to work,’ or ‘I have groceries in the car.’ That’s typically how they work right now,” he said. “We want to emphasize that these checkpoints are not meant to harass or do anything like that. All we’re asking is solely if they’re in compliance with the standing orders.”
Flores said the punishment for violating pandemic orders is meted out on a case-by-case basis and that the city is taking guidance from the district attorney’s office in that matter.
“The Texas penal code gives the officer discretion whether to cite, arrest or just to give a verbal warning,” he said. “We’re trying to avoid sending anybody to the Hidalgo County jail. We just want to educate the public to please, please stay home, but if need be, of course it could lead to a citation or arrest, depending on what the facts of the situation are.”
Information on coronavirus regulations is available on the sheriff’s department social media pages and on Hidalgo County’s website.
Monitor staff writer Dina Arévalo contributed to this report.