County lifts some virus rules

Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star Golfers made their way around the Tony Butler Golf Course early yesterday morning

At nearly every press conference Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. has held in recent weeks to update the public on the county’s coronavirus response, he’s acknowledged a number of complaints from recreational fishermen over closed county boat ramps, parks and beach access, and from golfers over shuttered courses.

The argument from both groups was that their pastimes are essentially models of social distancing, the very thing the county sought to enforce. The restrictions remained in place. However, with a new Amended Emergency Management Order signed by the judge on April 20, some golfers have reason to rejoice, even if recreational fishermen do not. Among the restrictions lifted by the new amended order, which took effect April 21, are rules that prohibited private club members and/or residents from playing golf and tennis at their clubs.

The order still requires tennis players and golfers to practice social distancing and wear masks or other face coverings in situations where social distancing is compromised. It also mandates no more than one person per golf cart, no touching of flags or ball washers, no rakes in sand traps, and that reservations and payments be conducted online. Club houses are to remain closed except for meal carry-out or delivery, golf and tennis pro shops will remain closed, and person-to-person contact is prohibited, according to the amended order, which also stipulates that fitness centers and swimming pools will remain closed.

Restrictions have also been lifted to allow retail shopping for pickup, curbside or delivery via online shopping or ordering by phone for non-essential businesses, though social distancing by employers and customers must be observed, masks or other facial coverings must be worn, and gatherings must be limited to no more than 10 people. Medical and dental practices may again perform elective procedures, though social distancing in waiting rooms must be maintained, no more than 10 people can be in the same space at the same time, and everyone must wear masks or facial coverings.

On April 17, Treviño issued a memorandum that car washes may be considered “essential business” under the county’s mandatory shelter-in-place order, based on rules promulgated by the National Cybersecurity Infrastructure Agency, and therefore should be allowed to operate as long as social-distancing and all other precautions are observed. Otherwise, the order’s provisions remain in force countywide, including the closure of county beach access, parks and boat ramps.

In a statement announcing the lifting of restrictions, Treviño thanked county residents who have been obeying social-distancing, travel-restriction, shelter-in-place and other emergency measures.

“The sacrifices you have made over the past several weeks have made it possible so that we may start considering how and when to reopen our local businesses and restart our economy,” he said. “Your continued cooperation is necessary to combat and slow the spread of the virus. We will monitor the number of positive cases daily and will respond as needed.”

As of April 20, the county had 310 confirmed cases, 116 individuals who had recovered from the virus, and seven deaths.

The partial lifting of restrictions comes after Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent announcement of a phased plan to reopen parts of the state’s economy based on coronavirus testing data and input from doctors. The county’s April 20 amended order states that the “method and means of reopening businesses and the economy must be guided by scientific data and health professionals.”

County residents must still comply with all provisions of the First Amended Emergency Management Order implemented March 25, extended through April 21 and now through May 4. Meanwhile, the county said it is consulting with mayors, school districts, the district attorney’s office and other law enforcement, and using guidance from the CDC and state and local health authorities “to determine the best and safest practices to reopen businesses and the economy in Cameron County.”

Dr. Joseph McCormick, epidemiology professor, founder of the UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville and former dean of the school, who has worked closely with the county and the City of Brownsville on their coronavirus responses, wrote in an email that testing “remains crucial” to any reopening of the economy, “in part because many people will not be comfortable going to shops or other venues if they feel uncertain about conditions, testing and practices at the shop or venue.”

“So testing and adherence to physical distancing and masking will actually help to reopen the appropriate venues and provide reassurance to the clients and the staff,” he said.

To date, the county has lacked resources for wider testing, largely due to a shortage of swabs and testing reagent — an issue in every state. The Trump administration until this week had not responded to bipartisan calls for the federal government to take the lead in developing a national testing strategy, though House Democratic leadership announced Tuesday that they had secured an agreement with the administration on a new interim emergency relief package, CARES 2, that includes $25 billion for national testing.

In a joint statement announcing the agreement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said the testing component “is the key to reopening the economy and resuming our lives.”

“The Administration has agreed to a national strategic testing policy that will focus on increasing domestic testing capacity including testing supplies,” they said.