County renews safety order, urges enforcement

Violations cause virus spread, officials believe

A coronavirus pandemic emergency order that requires protective masks to be worn in public at all times, puts some limitations on businesses and reinforces a countywide curfew was extended by La Salle commissioners in a unanimous vote Monday, November 9.
In renewing their order by another month, county commissioners are encouraging universal compliance with health and safety protocols, although county officials have expressed concern over lack of enforcement and repeated violations by local residents.
Notable among the apparent failures to comply with county orders are continued reports that local residents are not always wearing masks in public, have taken part in large family gatherings, are allowing youths to attend parties, and are not observing the 10 p.m. curfews for the under-17s.
In a brief presentation to county commissioners Monday, local health authority director Dr. Gregory Roth said he believes there will be spikes in case numbers after the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays because families gather and risk virus exposure.
Dr. Roth said that although authorities across the nation are presently gearing up for mass distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, concerns remain high that citizens tired of distancing themselves from each other and observing various protocols will begin breaking the rules in ever greater numbers, coinciding with the upcoming holidays.
Dr. Roth said preparations are being made for at least four different companies to begin offering a vaccine but that each variation of the drug will be administered in two doses, must be maintained at subzero temperatures in freezers that are not readily available, and cannot be mixed. For example, persons receiving the first shot from one company’s drug cannot take the second from another. This, according to Dr. Roth, is one of many logistical issues being addressed by healthcare staff who will oversee the vaccination program.
Those receiving the vaccines will be ranked in priority, beginning with those most at risk, emergency responders and healthcare providers, according to Roth, and all those who come into contact with potential virus carriers.
A further program to which La Salle is directing attention is the broad distribution of the flu vaccine, which dr. Roth described as more important this year than at any other time, as anyone contracting the coronavirus and influenza at the same time may be in mortal danger.
Dr. Roth said he believes the flu vaccine is effective and told commissioners this week that he has never seen any ill effects from the shot.
“But I have seen people die from the flu and I have seen people die from COVID,” the county’s health director said. “When it comes to holiday gatherings, of course they are going to come up. We have to be very smart about it. We have to be cognizant and aware.
“The highest risk is to be at a family gathering,” the doctor said. “I recommend against that.”
La Salle County Judge Joel Rodriguez said he has heard a number of concerns from local residents over coronavirus patients not staying home in quarantine and endangering others in public places such as grocery and retail stores.
“We have several law enforcement agencies here, and our law parallels the law from the Texas governor,” Judge Rodriguez said Monday, asking that more enforcement of safety protocols includes citation and police action. “We are in a transitional period [between sheriffs’ administrations], but the county constables can help as well.
“There is a curfew, but children are out at night and going to parties,” the county judge said. “We paid a lot of money for testing. It is not okay to say that you got tested and that you can now go out and do what you want.
“The mask order is still in play,” Rodriguez said. “We have managed to keep case numbers down, but we shouldn’t have to force it down everybody’s throat. Bars are open, but people aren’t wearing masks in there. It should be everybody participating equally.”
The judge told commissioners on Monday that case numbers stood at 13 in Encinal and 15 in the Cotulla area.
“People are infected,” Rodriguez said. “We have an order, but it doesn’t help if people don’t follow it. If the sheriff’s office can’t get on board with us, let us contact the governor’s office and say this is it.”
The county judge said he believes La Salle County may petition the Texas governor to deploy additional troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety to enforce mask orders, limitations on public gathering, and youth curfews.
“Nobody wants to be the bad guy, but that’s what it takes,” Judge Rodriguez said. “I’ve been to restaurants where people are not wearing masks. We have to make decisions that are sound and fair, and we have to protect the people.”
The county judge reiterated a call to local law enforcement for a heightened level of code enforcement.
“There is a curfew for children after ten o’clock, and it’s not okay to be with others of different households,” Rodriguez said. “Law enforcement can issue tickets… Either get masks or go home.
“I feel that it has gotten out of control because there is no enforcement,” the judge said. “Sheriff, I know this is a transitional period, but we need help with enforcing the order. There are parties, but there is a curfew. There are no citations. Are we going to follow the order? There hasn’t been much cooperation from your office. It’s just not happening.”
“We can do it,” Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez said. “Nobody has called me to say they have an issue. I’m not afraid to do the job.”
“You don’t have to wait for our department,” the county judge said. “The order is there. Juveniles, curfew, and parties. That’s the participation we need. You just can’t keep going south.”
“Kids under age fifteen or fourteen, they have no business being out at night,” the sheriff said. “I’m still the sheriff until December 31. We can enforce it, but you’re going to start getting calls. We are going to start giving citations. There are no more warnings. People can’t say they haven’t been warned. It’s for everyone’s benefit.”
La Salle Fire Rescue & EMS Chief Daniel Mendez told commissioners that compliance with mask orders in the county stands at approximately ninety percent, and said he believes that the remaining ten percent refuse to comply “because they believe it’s some conspiracy.”
Those who fail or refuse to comply with the emergency protocols, according to Chief Mendez, may be endangering the lives of the remaining population in the county.
“They spread it,” Mendesz said, “and the active cases put our loved ones at risk, and the virus taxes our system. Then, when emergency calls come in, we are not there because we are dealing with COVID cases.”
Mendez said his emergency response department maintains good relations with law enforcement and other agencies, and that they share concerns over the increasing number of gatherings and the potential risks of contagion they pose.
“It’s been eight, nine months, and I’m tired of being home,” the fire chief said. “The vaccine is coming. We will get there. But today, if one case is positive, it takes two to three hours to do an investigation, contact tracing, for just one case. It takes even longer if there has been a gathering.
“There’s a lot that goes into this,” Chief Mendez said of the response to the virus. “That ten percent, if they would just comply, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Commissioners debated whether to reopen the county’s nutrition centers that provide meals to the elderly in Cotulla and Encinal, and whether the county may resume its transport service for those who would be collected from their homes to receive meals and take part in organized activities at the two county facilities.
“Do we allow some people to come and eat?” Judge Rodriguez asked. “If we need to, we will shut it down again.”
“Picking up people in that van, they’re going to be sitting pretty close together,” Commissioner Noel Niavez said.
“That’s a high-risk population,” Dr. Roth said.
The court shared concerns over risks of virus contagion and agreed to continue home delivery of meals to eligible recipients as part of the emergency order.
La Salle’s renewed emergency order allows bars to remain open if owners and managers will enforce health and safety protocols, and the same allowance stands for game parlors, although the court has deleted references to alcohol service in the order. Commissioners defer instead to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission guidelines on allowing consumption, carry-in or carry-out, as well as free drinks service, at the parlors.
The order also renews a requirement that masks be worn by all, and that the county follow all guidelines laid down by the US Centers for Disease Control regarding employees returning to work after coronavirus testing.
“We need to meet, and start getting on top of some of these topics that you have brought up,” Dr. Roth told the court Monday.
Commissioners expect to return to issues of code enforcement and other restrictions in their order at an upcoming meeting.