Citing fatigue, revelers flocking to downtown McAllen amid COVID surge

McALLEN — A haze of synthesized smoke crept out from swinging doors of downtown McAllen bars-turned-restaurants Friday night. Crowds of young women in high-heeled shoes unsteadily walked over uneven pavement holding the hands of their friends or partners; the men doused in cologne, wearing freshly pressed long-sleeve shirts moved quickly from the doorstep of one establishment to another.

These same streets deserted in March — when the bars closed as COVID-19 cases multiplied in Hidalgo County — are once again hosting throngs of young people seeking companionship and escape from the nine-month-long encouraged isolation.

Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com
A group of people enjoy a night downtown McAllen on Friday as they await entry into a local establishment.

Bars remain unable to operate on-premises services, but the city of McAllen is aware of violations. Health officials are watching and growing concerned about the pending consequences from COVID-19 fatigue.

“They get tired of being inside all day and all night,” said Isaias, a 33-year-old man who did not divulge his last name. He wore a mask and walked with a group of friends Friday night. They were there the previous night, too.

He added, “I think as soon as places like downtown reopen, there’s a rush of people wanting to go out and have fun because people just don’t want to be cooped up anymore. You know?”

Bars that sell more liquor than food are not allowed to serve people on their premises, according to the county’s orders, which are in compliance with the governor’s orders.

But many have converted into bars that sell more food than liquor, allowing them to operate at 75% capacity, according to Criminal District Attorney Chief of Civil Division Josephine Ramirez-Solis, who spoke during last week’s streamed news conference.

Businesses that can allow clients inside must comply with minimum standard health protocols including not permitting customers to loiter at bars in common areas, only permitting people to eat or drink while seated; discouraging activities that enable close physical contact specifically in bar areas while groups should social distance by at least 6 feet; and no groups or tables of more than six people.

Employees must also adhere to health protocols, Ramirez-Solis said.

Code enforcement officers were assigned to walk among the crowds this weekend searching for violations, according to a news release the city issued Wednesday.

Lines of masked people holding their IDs formed outside different doors as establishments fell in and out of favor as Friday night progressed. Many pushed their foreheads forward as employees checked their temperature with digital laser thermometers before letting them inside.

Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com
A scene inside a local establishment in McAllen on Friday shows masked revelers.

Once past the entrance to some places, however, an ambiance cluttered by loud music, smoke and blinking neon lights reduced the depth of field posing challenges to penetrating observation.

Discourse between best practices to reduce the spread of COVID-19 place weight on the government and on the individual. For Isaias, individualism will decide the outcome.

“No across-the-board law or restriction is going to control this. I think it’s up to the individual to kind of get a handle on this,” he said.

McAllen police parked their units behind the barricades, closing the streets for thru-traffic and kept a watchful eye on the crowds as they nearly doubled in size from 11 p.m. through closing time.

Protective masks clung to most faces, though many also hung off an ear, were tucked under chins or were carried by their straps.

A young 22-year-old woman dressed in jeans and a spaghetti strap shirt stood on the curb across Suerte just as the clock was about to strike 2 a.m. She was wearing a mask and waiting for her friends to pick her up.

That night was not about celebrating, but simply “just to go out, to drink.” Though she tried avoiding businesses that looked too crowded, she didn’t mind if people bumped into her as long as she was wearing her mask and using the sanitizer.

Her friends called her back, “Where you at?” she asked. She shared her location and hung up.

“I’m sorry,” she said excusing herself. “I need to vomit.”

A glistening forehead and chest displayed newly formed sweat as she continued to wait for her ride.

Health officials along the border are concerned about how she and the rest of the people who went to crowded places will affect their families during the Thanksgiving holiday.

“I’m afraid that we’re already in the second wave,” Eddie Olivarez, Hidalgo County Health Department director, said during a Task Force of Border Health Officials meeting held Wednesday.

Hidalgo County started reporting triple-digit figures to the state for new cases since mid June. On Friday, the overall Valley total was about 800.

“I just think there needs to be a massive media campaign to deal with COVID fatigue,” Olivarez added. Officials who attended the meeting recommend such an effort to the state as they continue desperately to send a message encouraging personal responsibility.

A different approach dangled before passersby Friday night.

A message in capital letters on Cine El Rey’s darkened marquee sign hung above the 17th Street shifting crowds: “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.”

Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com
The marquee at Cine El Rey in McAllen reads “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone” as people walk by on Friday.

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