Hidalgo County judge tries slowing coronavirus, but Gov. Greg Abbott has limited his options

McAllen sits in Hidalgo County, whose top official issued an emergency order Monday in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But such mandates are largely unenforceable in the state. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

As the Rio Grande Valley grapples with an onslaught of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez is pushing hard for residents to stay at home. But the emergency order he issued Monday mandating that people shelter in their residences, restricting travel and limiting gatherings remains an unenforceable recommendation, according to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office.

Under Abbott's current statewide orders, local governments cannot enforce their own stay-at-home orders, as Abbott allowed them to do in the early stages of the pandemic. Then, Abbott said he was confident that local officials would make the best decisions for their communities in responding to the virus.

In the new Hidalgo emergency order, it also is “highly encouraged and recommended that all commercial businesses” cease their activities, unless they are essential, like activities related to health, safety or necessary supplies. Curbside, drive-thru and takeout services can proceed normally.

“This order has no enforcement mechanism, which makes it simply a recommendation for those to stay home if they can, which Governor Abbott supports," Abbott spokesman John Wittman said late Monday. "However, this order does not force businesses to shut down in the Rio Grande Valley."

Cortez did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

“No law enforcement or other official may detain, arrest, or confine in jail any person for a violation of this order,” he wrote in his order.

It also mandates a countywide curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., and everyone under 17 has to be accompanied by a parent or guardian when leaving the house. There are exceptions for both rules if there is a medical emergency or if someone is providing essential services.

After initially resisting calls to do so, Abbott issued a statewide face mask mandate earlier this month. In the new Hidalgo County order, only a second violation to the statewide mask order can be punished by a $250, in accordance with the existing state rules.

"Enforcing the existing protocols, including wearing face coverings, is proven to slow the spread of COVID-19," Wittman said. "It is essential that local authorities enforce the existing orders."

In Hidalgo County on Monday, 524 people tested positive for the virus, bringing the total number of infections there to 12,787, according to data released by the county.

“I am asking for all of us to come together and fight this battle as one,” Cortez said in a statement. “This action will help us do the right thing to save and protect each other from this deadly disease by sheltering at home.”

Local hospitals are full with COVID-19 patients, and ambulances have described long wait times to be able to deliver patients to crowded emergency rooms. U.S. Navy teams were deployed Sunday to the Rio Grande Valley, a region that includes Hidalgo County.

Hidalgo County's order will go into effect for two weeks, starting Wednesday.

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.