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Laredo Bars Expected To Shut Down, Bridges Remain Closed As COVID-19 Hospitalizations Rise

The border crossing from Laredo, Texas, to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Kainaz Amaria | NPR
The border crossing from Laredo, Texas, to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

After a week of rising COVID-19 hospitalizations, Laredo and Webb County officials expect state mandates to shut down bars and for other businesses to reduce their occupancy to 50% Saturday morning.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s current COVID-19 orders allowed bars to reopen, and for other businesses to expand their occupancy up to 75% as long as the local hospitalization rate remained below 15%.

Since last Saturday, Laredo has struggled to meet that threshold even under expanded hospital capacity. Officials said they expect to report a hospitalization rate above 15% for the seventh day in a row Friday evening and for after Abbott’s orders to take effect by 8 a.m. Saturday.

Fire Chief and Emergency Management Coordinator Guillermo Heard said Laredo hospitals have taken in more than 70 patients since the beginning of November, and the number of Intensive Care Unit patients has doubled — increasing from around 20 to the upper 40s.

On Friday afternoon, Laredo and Webb County officials reported 129 hospitalizations, a death toll of 386 and 1,403 active cases. The hospitalization rate stood at 21.3%.

“We are not at where we were at summer, but we do fear we could get to that point,” Heard said, reminding residents to wear masks, social distance and wash their hands. “I think if we just do those small measures, it will help.”

Over the summer, Laredo’s two major hospitals became overwhelmed and patients often had to be transferred to hospitals in San Antonio and as far as Lubbock. In addition to the Laredo Medical Center and Doctors Hospital, a Laredo standalone emergency room and a specialty long-term care facility are now taking COVID-19 patients.

Heard said they have enough ventilators and have requested more medical personnel from the state.

Laredo officials said they are also ramping up the enforcement of mask wearing and social distancing at businesses during the holidays.

Earlier this week, Laredo’s City Council voted to once again limit private, indoor gatherings to no more than 10 people outside of a household, and the city issued an advisory against Thanksgiving travel.

“We’re going to continue to do enforcement. We’re going to continue to do education,” Laredo City Manager Eads said. “But it’s just going to take that community effort to get us back where we need because, again, God forbid it's one of your family members that needs that space that’s not available.”

Laredo Health Director Richard Chamberlain said more than 30 bars will have to close down. Bars that have transitioned into restaurants can remain open.

For bars to reopen and businesses to expand occupancy, the hospitalization rate will once again have to drop below 15% for seven consecutive days.

In another blow to local businesses, the border city’s international bridges will remain closed to nonessential travelers under federal orders through Dec. 21.

Since March, cross-border travel at land ports of entry has been limited to activities deemed essential like trade, education and medical or government work. For months now, business and city leaders in Laredo have asked for the restrictions to be eased.

The latest extension of the restrictions comes at a pivotal time for border businesses which serve Mexican shoppers and tourists.

“We relied on that holiday shopper,” said Gerry Schwebel, executive vice president of the Laredo-based IBC Bank. “And so all of that is one more nail in the economic coffin of many of these merchants and retail establishments, and many of the hospitalities as well, that are accustomed to having November and December be their better months of the year.”

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz, who also had advocated for a bridge reopening, said the precaution is “understandable” given the current surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations on both sides of the border. In the meantime, he urged Laredoans to support local businesses.

“Please shop locally. Our economy needs the help,” he said. “But do so again responsibly and adhering strictly to the preventative measures we have in place.”

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María Méndez can be reached at maría@tpr.org or on Twitter at @anxious_maria