Houstonians have been told to hunker down for another month.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Tuesday that she is extending her “stay-at-home, work-safe” order, which applies to the county as well as the City of Houston, through the end of April to help the region cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the city’s fourth death from the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus, which has infected at least 680 residents of the city and county.
Citing advice and data from medical professionals in the region, Turner said the Houston area is projected to see a peak of COVID-19 cases in early May if the social distancing guidelines enacted a week earlier continue to be followed. If citizens do not cooperate, he said the disease’s impact on the community will last longer and be more severe.
“Now is not the time to scale back our order. It’s time to double down,” Hidalgo said. “We have not yet started to flatten the curve.”
Under the order, which can be viewed here, residents must stay at home except for essential reasons such as to exercise and obtain groceries, household items and medical care. Only businesses deemed essential are permitted to operate, and all citizens must maintain at least 6 feet of separation between each other.
Restaurants can remain open but are limited to carryout, drive-through and delivery services. City and county parks also are staying open, although the use of playgrounds, benches and sport courts is prohibited.
Harris County’s order also restricts churches to online-only services and one-on-one interaction between church leaders and parishioners. Although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who on Tuesday issued stay-at-home guidelines for the entire state, has permitted churches to stay open.
“We just got the news as everyone else about the governor’s order,” Hidalgo said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference. “To the extent there are conflicts, we’ll work those out in the coming hours and days if necessary.”
Hidalgo also said she would be issuing an order Tuesday that allows for the release of about 1,000 inmates of the Harris County Jail who have been accused, although not yet convicted, of non-violent crimes. She said inmates with a history of violent crimes or threats of violent crimes, along with burglary of a habitation offenders and those with three or more DWI charges, will not be released.
One jail inmate already has tested positive for COVID-19, and Hidalgo said about two dozen more are displaying symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath. Hidalgo described the jail as a “ticking time bomb” for a significant outbreak, because there are about 8,000 inmates in addition to about 3,000 workers who go in and out of the jail on a daily basis. Hidalgo said an outbreak at the jail could put a strain on the region’s hospital bed capacity as well as its other resources.
“There is no room for politics when it comes to this decision,” she said. “It’s the only choice we have.”