Harris, Fort Bend and Houston restrict restaurants, clubs to encourage social distancing

R. HANS MILLER | TIMES SENIOR REPORTER
Posted 3/16/20

In a join press conference between Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County announced additional restrictions and guidance to mitigate the spread of novel …

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Harris, Fort Bend and Houston restrict restaurants, clubs to encourage social distancing

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In a join press conference between Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County announced additional restrictions and guidance to mitigate the spread of novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. Restaurants in the county and city must switch to providing service only through takeout, drive-through and delivery while all bars and clubs are required to close, Hidalgo said. The county is recommending that all gatherings of any kind be cancelled or postponed as well. Fort Bend County has placed similar restrictions.

“The reality is we’re at a pivotal point right now,” Hidalgo said. “The decisions we make – the decision you make – to go out in groups or to stay home will very much determine whether people live or die.”

The announcement echoes responses from the largest cities in the United States which have placed similar restrictions, Turner said. It also mirrors the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Trump Administration regarding establishing firm boundaries for social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The CDC had lowered its recommended gathering size from 50 – just established Sunday – to 10 early Monday afternoon as cases nationwide mounted to 3,487 with 68 fatalities. New York and Washington states have born the brunt of the disease so far.  Globally, there have been nearly 182,000 cases and more than 7,100 deaths according to Johns Hopkins.

The county has increased its emergency response level to one, the highest rate the center can be set to, Hidalgo said. She added that the decisions to close certain businesses and restrict others were not easy to make and that officials understood the human impact of the decisions they were making – both the negative short-term impacts and the positive long-term impacts.

“History will say that we erred on the side of human life,” Hidalgo said.

Social Distancing

Maintaining a safe social distance continues to be the most effective tool to fight the spread of COVID-19, officials said during the press conference. Hidalgo and Turner expressed concern that, despite government officials’ advice to maintain social boundaries, many residents throughout the Greater Houston area continued to attend large functions over the weekend.

“This is about more than just the [Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo],” Hidalgo said. “Conferences, weddings, religious gatherings, festivals, parades, other types of assemblies – all need to recognize that gatherings of any kind should not be happening,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo said maintaining six feet of distance from others whenever possible, avoiding physical contact and staying completely away from groups of people, especially those of ten people or more, should be practiced.

Fort Bend County Judge KP George advised Fort Bend County residents to practice social distancing as well and issued a statement on his Facebook page and another via a press release with similar guidelines to those set for Houston and Harris County.

“At this time we are strongly encouraging social distancing for all in the community to help flattening the curve,” George said.

Fort Bend County bars and clubs should close down while restaurants are encouraged to limit service to delivery, takeout and curbside service. If Fort Bend restaurants do not close, they are encouraged to restrict seating to 50% capacity and diners are asked to keep groups to six people or fewer.

Fort Bend County also recommends using digital payment methods rather than handling cash or coins.

Throughout the last week, health officials have recommended “flattening the curve” – referring to the bell curve diagram showing hospital capacity in respect to the rate of infection. Health authorities in Houston, Fort Bend County and Harris County have all said that there simply aren’t enough hospital beds in the region if infection rates climb too quickly. A rapid advance of the disease could lead to an increase in the mortality rate for the disease – currently estimated at about 3.9% by Johns Hopkins – if hospitals become overwhelmed by the number of patients requiring treatment.

Laurie Christiansen of the Harris County Fire Marshall’s office said the restrictions placed on restaurants and bars will be enforced. The department’s goal is not to enforce by fine or arrest – thought a possible $2,000 fine is available if that type of action is needed – but rather to work with business owners and managers to ensure public safety through education and cooperation.

“If we don’t take definitive action now, then we will pay a much bigger price down the road,” Turner said.

Testing and Medical Supplies

Supplies for testing are currently limited he said, though aid has been released by the federal government which has supplies such as masks and testing supplies on the way to the Houston area, Houston Health Authority Dr. David Persse said.

“Yesterday we got help from the federal government that personal protective equipment and some other supplies we need [are] en route and once that is in place we will have a plan,” Persse said. “We have done some dry runs on this plan and we think that they are ready to go but we still have to get the personal protective equipment and some of the other testing supplies in place that’s not quite here yet, but we are hoping by the end of this week that … will be up and running.”

Some medical groups are running testing centers across Harris County, Persse said. They are small, but each piece of the puzzle for care is vital, he said.

Persse added that residents should not rush out to get tested for novel coronavirus if they are not experiencing symptoms.

 “If you don’t have symptoms, the test won’t work,” Persse said.

The test which identifies whether or not COVID-19 is in the body is not accurate until symptoms are present, Persse said. Prior to the presence of symptoms, the test may show a false negative.

Earlier Monday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he expects the state’s overall capacity to test for COVID-19 would be 10,000 tests on a weekly basis. Prior to that announcement, the number has been much lower.

Dr. Umair Shah, Harris County Health’s executive director, said social distancing is still the best preventive measure in place at this time. Shah said local officials and the public will have to make difficult decisions to minimize the impact of novel coronavirus on the region. Those responsible for policy will also have to adjust plans as the situation evolves.

“As we’ve said all along – as the situation continues to evolve, as it continues to change that our response will also need to change alongside with it,” Shah said.

Officials across the region continue to urge residents to remain calm and to act responsibly by practicing social distancing and good hygiene.

Persse said that the goal of the measures from restrictions on businesses and gatherings to increased testing capabilities and protective gear for medical professionals is to prevent the spread of illness caused by novel coronavirus – as well as its effects. More than 300 deaths from the disease were reported in Italy on Sunday, he said. Steps to mitigate the spread of the disease in the Houston area and across the U.S. can minimize the death toll in America.

“We recognize that all of these attempts are everything we can do to help slow the spread of this virus in our community and that is absolutely critical to what we’re trying to do,” Shah said.

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