Photo: Cuate Santos /Laredo Morning Times
Rep. Henry Cuellar (TX-28) held a press conference Friday as he protested and presented a plan on the ongoing partial border closure policy against Mexican citizens traveling into the country in efforts to save area businesses and bring the economy back to life.
The plan presented by the congressman focuses on reducing or eliminating restrictions on non-essential travel while limiting the further spread of coronavirus at the U.S.-Mexico border. The call for solutions regarding the border’s continued partial closure to land port tourists from Mexico by the congressman is essential in the sense that the months of October, November and December are some of the busiest and most important economically along the border for Laredo.
“The purpose of this is that in the next week or so, the administration is going to make a decision as to what they are going to do with nonessential travel,” Cuellar said. “Our problem is what they are going to do with nonessential travel, because you can take a look at Bridge I and see how not busy it is, and you can take a look at all the businesses around downtown and see signs that say ‘For Rent,’ ‘For Rent’ and ‘For Rent.’ Their plan has been to extend the nonessential travel for 30 days and another 30 days, but in my opinion, that is no real plan.”
Cuellar said he fears that if the even 30-day extension is once again implemented until Oct. 21, this would mean that the businesses of the city and area would lose at least one-third of its most important time for tourists and shoppers, which would cause many businesses to go down under.
Various business leaders present in the press conference stated how the policy not allowing any nonessential travel from Mexico has affected them greatly.
“In downtown Laredo, 85-90% of downtown is close as there is only about one business open on each street and 6-7 fully opened around downtown,” said Imeldo Martinez, the owner of Laredo Insurance and Financial Services. “I have businesses in seven border cities from Brownsville up to El Paso, and the situation is the same with each one facing major losses. Some have not even reopened since the border closure. I believe that if things remained the same for the next three months, then we can expect for downtown and other border downtowns to become a cemetery as businesses will die.”
Martinez says he has nine businesses along the Laredo area but only three remain open as there is not enough people coming in to sustain his business. He hopes that the border restrictions policy can change.
“We need to let it be known to all those in charge of policy that the current policy focused on bridge restrictions cannot be sustained any longer,” said Miguel Angel Inclan, the owner of La Sabrosita Palleteria. “All the business owners that I know point out that they can no longer keep up with the increasing costs and loss of revenue because of the continued closure to Mexican shoppers via land. Also, we do not believe it is fair that Mexican people or any foreigner can visit the country from an airport but cannot cross the bridge.”
Cuellar echoed Inclan’s comments about entering via airports, and asked if there is any more worth on a person flying than walking or driving into the country. The congressman said that he has spoken to the homeland security secretary about why land ports and not airports and seaports are being restricted but no answer was given to him by the administration.
The businesses affected are not just downtown but also beyond that as the hospitality industry and even restaurants along the Interstate-35 corridor have also seen lost revenue with less people traveling into the country.
“We have several restaurants along the City of Laredo, and by far our restaurants along the I-35 corridor have seen the most impact with our downtown location being heavily impacted the hardest,” said restaurant owner Michael A. Marasco. “I firmly agree with the notion of October, November and December being our peak months for the sales of different industries that we have. With lower customers and sales, we have lost over 100 positions within our organization as we have not had to hire any people despite our industry having high turnover, but there is no need right now because of the policies.”
In efforts to save these businesses, Cuellar called for enhanced medical screening on the inland ports of the country, including the three in Laredo. He said the technology we have can produce COVID-19 test results in 15 minutes, and other recent tests from the U.S. government bought from Abbott Laboratories have a five-minute window and can be produced at five million per month.
Under this plan, Mexican and American citizens and legal residents coming into the country can simply cross the border, get their temperature checked, be tested quickly and then travel inland for whatever business they have.
Cuellar said Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers would not have to be the ones performing the tests as he noted there is sufficient money for the federal government to contract out the positions. He said his plan would also help many of the American and legal residents of the country that cross occasionally to not spend so many hours on the bridges waiting to cross, as waiting times have increased with many resources being put forward to determine essential travel.
At the very least for many business owners, it’s a glimmer of hope as they worry what will happen if they aren’t able to get more people in their stores later this year.
“We are still open but sales are very low compared to the the first of May when we reopened,” said Betty Sandoval, the owner of Daisy’s Boutique. “Sales started well, but since so many COVID-19 infections started, sales fell. Before the virus, downtown was already dying, but this has just caused for the downtown area to fully die as it is more lonely than ever now. I also urge the bridges to be reopened as the economy of the border depends a lot on the people from Mexico who come to do their shopping.”
Statistically, commercial trade — or what is deemed essential trade by the federal government — is back to its normal figures. Yet, the United States Travel Association points out that $360 billion has been drained from the American economy, which equates to about $2 billion a day. For the state of Texas in terms of Mexican shoppers in the area, approximately $19 billion dollars have been lost because of the continued shutdown.
“We are the United States of America, and if we cannot even screen people coming in, then there is a problem there,” Cuellar said. “And that is why I am standing with the business community in making sure that we keep the health of the individual but also maintain the health of the economy.”