In Starr County, Texas, the pandemic has become a "before and after" story — before the state took over, and after it did.
The large but sparsely populated county on the Texas-Mexico border had managed to keep the coronavirus contained in the early months by imposing 14-day quarantine restrictions on people who tested positive, closing businesses before the state ordered closures, linking with private businesses to provide testing, and implementing a curfew with fines and jail penalties.
Then, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) overrode the local decisions and began a phased-in reopening of businesses in the state in April.
“They took the teeth away from us to be able to enforce anything,” said Alberto Perez, the city manager for Rio Grande City, the largest city in the county with a population of more than 64,000.
In the two months after Abbott exerted his authority, Starr County has watched its handful of cases — on many days there were no new ones — steadily climb and spike this month.
On June 22, the county, located in the Rio Grande Valley, saw a peak of 75 new cases. It had reported no deaths from the virus until Tuesday, when there were three. The county had recorded 407 total cases of the coronavirus by Friday, compared to the nine cases it had up to April 29, the day after Abbott made clear his rules trumped those of local officials.
“It has been a dramatic change here,” said Dr. José Vasquez, the local health authority and head of the Starr County Memorial Hospital Board.
"The governor erred," Carlos Martinez, a Rio Grande City restaurant worker, said. "We were doing very well" under the stricter regulations.
He acknowledged the stricter rules had an economic impact on businesses, but said "health is more important" because "without health, there is no economy."
Across Texas, the closings had taken their economic toll and there had been pressure to reopen as unemployment rose. Texas' economy was also being rocked by the drop in oil prices.
But Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, which helps the local government and businesses develop the local economy, said the county’s early experience shows there is “always a way to try to reconcile the safety and the economic needs of our county."
"We know there’s metrics to try to get a feel for how things should go, but our community can be an example of how quickly things went wrong,” Benavidez said.
Most of the cases at the beginning of the pandemic were travel-related, meaning a person who had traveled from outside the county brought it into Starr County. But over about the last month, the county has seen a lot of community and family spread, sometimes through family gatherings, Perez and Vasquez said. In one family alone, up to 20 people have been infected, Vasquez said.
“For six to eight weeks in my county, we were able to get the situation very, very well controlled. There was a time where we went through 21 straight days without any COVID cases. At some point, we had eight to 10 cases, where in the neighboring counties they had about 200 cases,” Vasquez said. “That is no longer the situation here after the governor released activities and we went back to business, and the measures we had taken were lifted and the capability of imposing restrictions and fines … were lifted. We have seen a dramatic increase in our numbers,” he said.
Vasquez said the county has increased testing, but he said the increases in cases cannot be attributed to testing alone.
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