A steady stream of Mexican residents strolled across the Gateway International Bridge into Brownsville, Texas, on a recent hot and humid evening.
In ones and twos, they walked two-tenths of a mile into America, to a plasma center with a sign welcoming them as heroes; convalescent plasma is being investigated as a treatment for COVID-19. Then, a pint or so lighter, they returned home with flesh-colored bandages on their arms.
Selling the liquid part of blood has become one of the few cross-border activities permitted under current restrictions, which divide a community that spans the Rio Grande. The bustle of life around the 1,250-mile border is on pause: In Laredo, the number of people crossing from Mexico by bus is down 60% from a year ago, according to the most recent U.S. government data. In Progreso, visitors traveling by foot have fallen by half.
The usual stream of Mexican shoppers who visit stateside stores has dwindled to a near halt. And Americans who get their medications in Mexico for a fraction of the cost worry they'll be cut off as border-crackdown rhetoric intensifies. Entry points are down to just two lanes in some spots, with the only visitors traveling north on business deemed essential.
Freddy Khlayel-Avalos, an El Paso resident and school board member, has relatives who haven't been able to visit since restrictions were imposed in March. "To me, it's another example of blaming America's problems on immigrants," he said.
The Rio Grande Valley, a four-county region that stretches across Texas's southernmost tip, remains one of America's most afflicted areas, with the highest hospitalization rates, deaths at more than twice the state average, overwhelmed hospitals and refrigerated trucks serving as back-up morgues. President Donald Trump's administration has extended border restrictions until at least Aug. 20. The resulting stasis is a stark change for a uniquely binational culture.
In 2016, Nielsen found that 3.5 million consumers crossed the Valley border each year to fill prescriptions, visit family or shop for clothes; 63% of visitors to the U.S. came at least once a month. Those who visited five or more times in a month took an average of 48 trips and spent two-thirds more than all other visitors. The Border Trade Alliance, a non-profit that represents businesses and local governments, has said "an indefinite halt to cross-border travel will result in an economic calamity."
At La Copa Hotel in McAllen, Mexican shoppers visiting La Plaza Mall next door typically book 90% of the rooms, according to Carolina Sanchez, the general manager. With shopping not considered essential, the hotel has been filling just five or six rooms a night, she said. The only recent influx of business came in July from nearby residents who lost power during Hurricane Hanna and a roofing company that booked rooms for workers repairing damage from the storm.
On the other side of the border, the pandemic's effects are equally grim. Like their U.S. neighbors, Mexican states have seen a spike in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. The Tamaulipas health minister warned last week that hospitals in several cities, including Matamoros, were full, according to Mexico News Daily. KABB television in San Antonio quoted anonymous Mexican officials who said COVID-19 victims would be buried in mass graves if funeral homes were unable to cremate bodies within the 12-hour deadline mandated by the state.
People who cross are taking preventative measures seriously, at least at checkpoints, said Luis Torres, a 43-year-old collector for Cameron County's International Bridge System. He said he has some concerns about catching the virus while working, so he uses hand sanitizer frequently, keeps his mask on and wears gloves when exchanging dollar bills for coins that can be used in the turnstiles.