Drop in hospitalizations leads to expanded capacity

Some local restaurants that offer drive thru or curbside service have seen a steady flow of sales because of their ability to adapt to the COVID-19 restrictions in place. (Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

HARLINGEN — A drop in Rio Grande Valley COVID-19 hospitalizations has led state officials to allow businesses such as retail stores and restaurants to expand from 50 percent to 75-percent customer capacity, signaling an economic boost.

Officials said Valley hospitalization levels dropped below 15 percent about four months after an early summer surge in new COVID-19 cases led to soaring hospitalizations that pressed hospitals over capacity, sparking a regional crisis.

The state’s decision lifts customer capacity from 50 to 75 percent at Valley retail stores, restaurants, office buildings, manufacturing plants, gyms, classes, museums and libraries.

In a morning press release, Mayor Chris Boswell described the state’s decision to expand the Valley’s business capacity as “good news for Harlingen and the RGV.”

However, Boswell urged residents to continue following federal guidelines aimed at curbing the virus’ spread.

“Obviously, I’m pleased our hospitalizations have gone down,” he said Wednesday afternoon during an interview. “I’m convinced we don’t have to shut our businesses down as long as we’re masking, washing our hands, keeping crowds down. As long as we can do that we can keep our businesses going and keep our jobs.”

Business boost

For businessmen like Jose Silva, expanded capacity will help bring more customers into restaurants struggling since the pandemic’s March outbreak.

“That’s great,” Silva, owner of the Golden Corral restaurant, said. “A lot of these small mom-and-pop shops can add seats — that keeps the registers ringing.”

Still, state and local orders requiring restaurants separate tables to curb the spread of the virus will keep his restaurant’s capacity at 62 percent, he said.

“We have everything spread out for 62 percent for six-foot distancing,” he said.

At his popular restaurant, customers are slowly coming back.

“They’re slowly becoming comfortable at a slow pace,” he said.

Now, he said, his business is down about 42 percent compared to levels reached before the pandemic’s March outbreak.

In May, when Gov. Greg Abbott allowed businesses to reopen following a month-long shutdown aimed at controlling the spread of the virus, his business was down about 75 percent.

Officials warn residents keep up their guard

At City Hall, Josh Ramirez, the city’s health director, urged residents to continue battling the virus to avoid a spike in new cases that could overwhelm hospitals as the region enters the flu season.

“That’s great news economically for the Valley,” he said. “We want to stress that people don’t let their guard down and continue wearing masks and social distancing.”

Boswell warned against a repeat of the dramatic spike that followed the state’s plan to reopen businesses in May.

By June 12, Abbott was allowing businesses to expand their customer capacity from 50 to 75 percent.

But amid spiking case numbers, the governor scaled back customer capacity to 50 percent on June 29.

Hospital calls on residents to avoid a second spike

At Harlingen’s Valley Baptist Medical Center, officials warned the upcoming flu season coupled with a spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations could threaten another regional crisis.

“As we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic together, Valley Baptist Medical Center-Harlingen relies on our community to help slow the spread of the virus so that we can continue to provide safe, appropriate healthcare,” hospital officials stated.

“While declining COVID-related hospitalizations in our region is positive news for our community, COVID-19 remains active in our area and we urge the public to continue to adhere to best practices to prevent its spread, including the use of face coverings in public, frequent hand washing and adhering to social distancing whenever possible.”

“As we enter flu season and prepare for an increase in flu-related hospitalizations, it is critical to remember that we all play an important role in avoiding another COVID spike in the Rio Grande Valley and the associated strain on the region’s healthcare system such a spike would bring.”

Background

Last month, Abbott allowed businesses across much of the state to expand their customer capacity from 50 to 75 percent amid falling case numbers.

But high hospitalization levels from Laredo to Victoria led the governor to keep the region’s businesses capped at 50-percent capacity.

For about a month, the region’s number of new COVID-19 cases has continued to drop after an alarming summer spike that led Cameron and Hidalgo counties to order measures such as curfews.

Officials attribute the drop in new cases to residents following federal safety guidelines aimed at controlling the spread of the virus.

fdelvalle@valleystar.com