LAREDO, Texas – Federal travel restrictions imposed after the pandemic began in March, on a month-to-month basis, have taken a toll on border economies.
Mexican shoppers who fall under the government’s non-essential category, are indeed essential to Laredo’s economy, said Miguel Conchas, longtime president and CEO of the Laredo Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s been a major problem for us,” Conchas said.
Conchas said shoppers who would come to Laredo from throughout Mexico, represented 40% of the city’s retail sales. He said many would also travel to San Antonio.
Conchas said Laredo, and its sister city Nuevo Laredo, have endured floods, major peso devaluations and drug wars in Mexico.
But, Conchas said, never has the local economy been hit with the triple threat of travel restrictions, the dangerous rise of COVID-19 cases on both sides of the border and Mexico’s own faltering economy amidst the pandemic.
Conchas compared the economic impact to the 1976 peso devaluation that he said was “terrible as far as the retail industry is concerned.”
Eugene Crawford, acting port director, said, the misconception is that international bridges are closed.
“The bridges are still open to essential travel, to legitimate trade, to emergency purposes, public safety, things of that nature, including the trades industry,” Crawford said.
Crawford said the border has had to change in light of the pandemic.
“Just like the rest of the country has had to change the way they do business,” Crawford said. “I think we’re doing a good job in protecting the country and protecting our officers and the communities that we live in.”
Although U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents who work in essential jobs are allowed to cross the border, Crawford said the port is seeing about 60% less traffic than what they saw at this time last year and bus traffic is down 35%.
Crawford said he also does not expect to see the long lines of “paisanos,” who travel back to Mexico to see their families over the holidays.
However, this sort of enforcement of the restrictions has created confusion, Conchas said.
“If you fly into the country, you’re allowed,” Conchas said. “But, if you come in a car or walk across, you’re not allowed. So, we don’t understand that.”
Conchas said at one time, thanks to Congressman Henry Cuellar of Laredo, a plan was in the works to have COVID-19 protocols for those entering the U.S. through the ports of entry.
Conchas said the proposal had even reached the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“For a while there, it seemed quite possible,” Conchas said.
But every 21st of the month, the restrictions were extended, Conchas said. He said he is hopeful that the Biden-Harris administration will re-consider.
Mayor of Laredo Pete Saenz said this all puts the city in a tough site.
“Right now, we are in a difficult spot,” Saenz told KSAT. “It’s a balancing act trying to keep people safe and our local economy afloat. Although both can co-exist, it becomes more troublesome when hospital capacity is in question and patients are being transported to other communities for treatment.”
Saenz said the city has suffered during some of the busiest months for the port of entry.
“These months during the holiday season are crucial,” Saenz said. “As you know Laredo depends on the Mexican tourists and visitors to come here to shop at our stores, eat at our restaurants and stay at our hotels. Luckily, to offset retail sale loses, we did see an increase in December in commercial vehicle crossing, which has helped us a lot. Laredo also saw an increase in motel/hotel occupancy in those months due to outside medical staff coming to our city and helping with our hospital-patient caregiving. These were teams sent to Laredo from the State.”
Related: San Antonio nurse on the front lines in Laredo to help combat COVID-19 surge