EDINBURG — The mayors of Hidalgo County’s largest four cities came together here at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance on Friday in a bid to pave the way for a more active municipal role in Texas’ response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mayors Jim Darling of McAllen, Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez of Pharr, Richard Molina of Edinburg and Armando O’Caña of Mission all signed a letter outlining their desire for more pandemic autonomy and addressed it to the governor.
Specifically, the mayors petitioned for the ability to create local size restrictions on gatherings and to decide locally whether to enforce mask wearing and how to enforce it, framing those desires against the backdrop of the Rio Grande Valley’s dramatic uptick in COVID-19 cases over the last month.
“We had a little bit of control of it, now it’s getting out of control, and I echo the sentiment of my colleagues, that we need to have local control in order for us to be able to deal with it,” Hernandez said before the signing.
Darling said municipalities bear the brunt of enforcing and interpreting orders meant to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“When people have questions, they call us,” Darling said. “They don’t call the state of Texas. If they do call the county, and if the county says, ‘What city are you from?’ they refer them back to our city. And yet we’re tasked with interpreting state and countywide orders that we don’t write, and we don’t participate in their preparation, but yet we’re responsible primarily for their interpretation, and to a limited situation, to enforcement.”
According to Darling, interpreting and enforcing the endless barrage of orders thrown up to slow the pandemic has been no easy task. He gave the example of mandating mask wearing. The state’s policy currently allows local governments to require businesses to make their customers wear masks, but according to Darling, the only way a business could enforce that policy on customers who refuse to put on a mask while inside a business is to file a criminal trespassing charge against them.
“We don’t want to get in the middle of that, number one, and number two, it flies in the face of the state’s position that this should not be a criminal enforcement, it should be a civil enforcement by fine,” he said.
Mayors Jim Darling of McAllen, Richard Molina of Edinburg, Armando O’Caña of Mission and Edinburg City Manager Ron Garza speaking after the signing.
Darling said in his view enforcing mask wearing through code enforcement employees rather than putting that burden on business owners would be a more effective solution.
“What we’re asking the governor is to give us the power to require masks in public places, and enforce it with civil remedies, not criminal remedies,” he said. “We don’t want to make people criminals.”
O’Caña repeated those sentiments, comparing people not wearing a mask to an overgrown lot in his city.
“I can send my crews from the city of Mission, according to due process, and I can mow the grass and put a lien on it,” he said.
None of that infrastructure exists for enforcing mask wearing, but O’Caña is hoping a unified ordinance to the pandemic by the four mayors could create it.
“We’re asking the governor, please allow us to take care of business…,” he said.
It’s not entirely clear yet what exactly that unified municipal response will look like if the governor approves the mayors’ request. Darling said although Hidalgo County mayors have worked together before, he doesn’t think they’ve ever before signed a letter together like Friday’s or decided on a joint ordinance in the past.
“Technically the mayors can issue an order without the vote of the city council, and so we could have a meeting and all sign an order together,” Darling said, noting that he would rather consult McAllen’s city commission before taking that step. “Everybody has a little bit different ideas, so I think we’ll stick to the simpler things we can all agree on and go forward with that method.”
According to Darling, the governor would likely have to pass some sort of new order to give the mayors the authority they’re looking for. If they can’t change Abbott’s mind, Darling says they’ll likely try to change the public’s mind, maybe through some sort of public health campaign.
If nothing changes and those case numbers keep going up, Darling says, more Hidalgo County residents and more Hidalgo County businesses will suffer.
“It’s really up to the individual American whether we’re going to get through this without more drastic measures, so let’s do it. Let’s be Americans first and forget politics and all the rest of the stuff, we can go back to that later after we solve the common enemy, which is this virus,” he said. “This is about being courteous to your fellow Americans, and about being responsible for your fellow Americans.”