COVID-19 forces ‘Winter Texans’ to consider staying put in South Texas through summer

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Trailer parks in South Texas taking precautions to protect seniors

PHARR, Teas (Border Report) — Should they stay or go back home? That is the question plaguing many “Winter Texan” retirees who are changing their travel plans this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 100,000 seniors who relocate to South Texas from throughout the United States and Canada every fall usually leave in early spring before Easter. But with COVID-19 spiking in many northern cities and towns, many seniors say they feel it’s safer to be in South Texas and they are hunkering down and could be staying a while.

“We’re staying put for as long as we can,” said Louise Butler, 73, a retired educator and author who along with husband Tom — also 73 — winters at the Sandpipers Resort RV Park in Edinburg, Texas.

Tom and Louise Butler are ‘Winter Texans’ who live at the Sandpipers Resort RV Park in Edinburg, Texas. (Courtesy Photo)

Normally, the Butlers would be starting to wrestle together their belongings and preparing to depart in a few weeks back to their home in St. Louis, Mo., or to travel to be with grandchildren scattered throughout the country. They admit they usually stay later than most Winter Texans, but this year they could need a new moniker because they might be here well into the summer months.

“We usually don’t leave until the first part of May but now there is no date specific, at all. We’re going to be staying here as long as the quarantine is the best policy for the country,” Louise Butler told Border Report this week via phone.

Her gated RV trailer park, like most in South Texas, is closed to non-residents and caters to senior citizens, whom health officials say are among the most vulnerable during this COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the Butlers’ neighbors is also staying but without his wife who left for upstate New York several weeks ago on a family mission. Her potential exposure to the deadly virus, which is particularly prevalent in New York, forced the couple to make the difficult decision that he would stay in South Texas and she would remain in New York so she wouldn’t unnecessarily expose anyone in South Texas, Louise said.

Looking out for one another in this close-knit community where the trailers are tightly spaced, is essential at this time.

The Butlers invite the neighbor over for Monday night dinners and the gentleman “always brings a bottle of wine,” Louise Butler said.

As she strolls the perimeter of their closed park, she says the same conversation occurs each time she comes upon someone new. “When you run into someone you go to the opposite side of the street. The dialogue is always: ‘Everybody good at your house? Do you need anything?'”

When President Donald Trump on March 20 announced the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada were being closed to unnecessary travel, the Canadians left en masse, “because they wanted to get back before the ‘Maple Curtain’ went down,” she said.

Canadians wanted to get back before the ‘Maple Curtain’ went down.”

Retiree Louise Butler

But most of the others have stayed and could be here through the summer.

Read a Border Report story on the temporary borders closures

Kristi Collier, who runs the organization Welcome Home Rio Grande Valley, which puts on group activities for the seniors during the winter months, said Canadians make up about 20% of the region’s Winter Texans. Their premature departures could affect the South Texas economy, which is already suffering under layoffs and with the ongoing lockdowns.

Kristi Collier who runs Welcome Home Rio Grande Valley for the Winter Texans is seen in McAllen, Texas, on Sept. 19, 2019, at a senior supper event. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

But Collier says that those like the Butlers who are staying could help to regenerate economic activity at grocery stores and gas stations.

“Some people are staying tight, staying a little longer because they don’t want to travel and that’s really great,” said Collier, who is a rock star among the senior sect for the many activities she normally helps facilitate.

Last year, she organized a cruise to Mexico for 300 people, and she started a dinner club last summer for those year-round Texans, whom she calls “Converted Texans.” But 2020 has proven to be very different, she said, and all activities have come to a halt and the health of the seniors is now their primary concern.

Read a Border Report story on Converted and Winter Texans.

All trailer park dances and potluck dinners are canceled. Park pools and bingo games are closed and there is an appointment sheet now at most parks to use the laundry facilities so that no more than 10 people congregate at once to wash clothes. And all trips to Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, where many seniors traditionally see doctors and buy prescriptions, have stopped, Collier said.

“People aren’t crossing the border for prescriptions or dental services. Our Winter Texans are in that category for most at-risk,” Collier said. “We have a lot of diabetics, cancer survivors, people on pacemakers. So they’re very much aware that they’re in that at-risk category.”

When Hidalgo County this week announced a countywide lockdown — which began Friday — Linda and Fred Sauer, both 70, initially scrambled to try and quickly pack up their RV at the park they live in Alamo, Texas. Linda Sauer has an April 10 doctor’s appointment scheduled in Kansas City, Mo., where they live during the summer months, and she’d really hate to miss it.

But as they brewed on the idea and weighed the risks, Linda Sauer said via phone late Thursday that they were inclined to stay in Alamo in their 600-square-foot unit at the Winter Ranch RV Resort, and that they would take the situation “day by day.”

“When you’re 70 years old, you just can’t up and go as quickly,” Linda Sauer said. “There’s a good number who are staying longer because our children at home are telling us it’s safer down here than to be at home.”

“Everyone’s assessing whether to stay or go and a big part of it is if people don’t have a reason to go back, like a doctor’s appointment, then they are opting to stay because in our park it’s kind of a safe place. We can still walk around and still bicycle around and see friends,” she said.

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