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BACK TO NORMAL?
By Marc Robertson
Local governments are expecting to address restrictions and emergency orders this week in the wake of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s announcement that the state will “reopen one hundred percent” and that mask mandates are being lifted.
The governor’s announcement is set to take effect this week, and while local government entities may not enact orders that supersede the state government, elected officials are hopeful that social distancing and other health and safety practices will continue on a voluntary basis.
County governments have reopened most of their facilities this month, with park gates being unlocked in Frio County, and La Salle County commissioners renewing an emergency order but lifting a forced closure on bars.
Under the governor’s instruction, all restaurants may reopen to full capacity this week.
The order comes a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began affecting Texas, and Spring Break 2020 marked the last holiday that many residents would enjoy with groups, at festivals, or in public places.
A number of restrictions remain in place across the region, however. In La Salle County, a curfew for teenagers is still in effect for the nighttime hours.
The South Texas Regional Advisory Council confirmed this week that the death toll from the coronavirus claimed a total of 42 lives in Frio County and 17 in La Salle over the past year, while confirmed cases of the virus reached 2,112 in Frio County and 875 in La Salle. The regional authority’s Medical Operations Center receives raw data from each of the reporting agencies in its coverage area, including Frio Regional Hospital in Pearsall and the La Salle County Fire Rescue & EMS.
La Salle Fire Chief Daniel Mendez said this week that he believes the comparatively low numbers of fatalities in the two-county area when compared to other regions in Texas may be due in large part to local observance of the emergency orders and compliance with health and safety guidelines.
“The number of active cases we have is now way lower than it was a couple of months ago,” Mendez said in response to the Texas governor’s order that the state reopen its facilities and return to business at full capacity. “We still have signs in place across the county, asking people to wear masks and to observe sensible social distancing practices.
“What is clear is that people’s observance of the rules has made a difference,” the chief said on Monday.
Mendez said local authorities believe many area residents may be unaware that privately owned businesses are at liberty to enforce their own mask requirements and to restrict access to their properties.
“Just as in the past you’d see signs at stores that said ‘No shoes, no shirt: No service,’ businesses are allowed to require all customers to wear a mask when entering,” Mendez said. “That’s their right, and we hope that the businesses in our communities will continue to support that, for the overall health and safety of the population.”
Emergency responders tasked with tracing the origins of a coronavirus contagion have reported to county government that it was not due to lapses in enforcement that a number of small-town residents became ill with the virus, but that some refused to comply with orders and arranged “secret parties” in violation of a ban on crowding.
In a brief presentation to county commissioners earlier this year, Mendez and his staff indicated that health and safety protocols appeared to have been effective at businesses, in offices and at places where people may have gathered – such as at funerals – and that park closures did much to prevent inappropriate grouping, as contact tracing did not show any coronavirus origins at such places or events. Mendez said that incidents from which the virus had spread to groups of people had all been found to have been illicit family gatherings or parties held in violation of the county order.
“The virus is not gone, even though the governor opened the state,” Mendez said. “It’s still a threat, and it’s a duty and responsibility of every citizen to follow the basic guidelines, to practice social distancing and to wear a mask. It is because we did this before that we did not have as many coronavirus cases as others.
“We still need to follow the guidelines,” the fire chief said. “We need to get people vaccinated, and everybody should take every opportunity to have a vaccine when it is available.”
La Salle County is reporting having given as many as six thousand COVID-19 vaccines since January, having first given priority to first responders, the elderly, and the vulnerable.
“Three thousand people have had both vaccine shots in La Salle County,” the fire chief said. “There was a delay during the late-February winter storm, and some residents went elsewhere for their shots, so the number of locals who have been immunized may be even higher.”
Vaccinations continue in the region at an average of nearly two thousand people per week, according to data made available Tuesday.
Frio Regional Hospital CEO John Hughson said on Tuesday that he is confident at least two thousand local residents have had their vaccines, that many others traveled to other cities for their shots, and that voluntary use of masks and continuing health and safety practices will help the community emerge from the pandemic without further loss.
“We had a list in December and January of some five thousand people who wanted to be in line for a vaccine, and now only five out of the first two hundred on that list said they needed to come in for a shot,” Hughson said. “This tells us that a great number of people who urgently needed a vaccine because of their work or their priority as elderly or vulnerable have been vaccinated, either here or elsewhere.
“Is Frio County protected from the virus? That’s a question that can only be answered with a heavy stress on the continued voluntary use of masks and social distancing,” the hospital’s chief executive officer said. “If people will observe these basic guidelines, then yes, we can be reasonably sure that we are safe.”
Frio Regional Hospital continues its safety measures by limiting public access to the building, enforcing a mask order and emphasizing social distancing among staff and the public.
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicated late last week that it believes groups of people who have been vaccinated may be able to gather safely, although Hughson said an uncertainty may always remain whether all persons have been immunized.
“When it comes to family gatherings, where everyone knows everyone and can trust that people have been vaccinated, people may be safe,” Hughson said. “It is difficult to assume that everyone has been vaccinated, though.”
Hughson described masking as vital to the continued improvement of the county’s condition in the waning months of the pandemic, describing the use of masks as “a minimal invasion of liberties.”
“It’s my duty to protect other people,” he said. “It is a simple matter of being courteous to your fellow man.”