It has been nearly six weeks since restaurant dining rooms were allowed to reopen in Texas. Bars, bowling alleys and beauty salons have since resumed operations, as have exercise gyms, youth sports leagues and a wide range of other organizations and businesses.
The reopenings with limited capacities and building occupancies, per an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, have been aimed at boosting an economy that was crippled by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, when public events were called off, businesses were closed and citizens were ordered to stay home as often as possible. But as more and more people have gotten out and about in Houston and beyond since the statewide stay-at-home order expired at the end of April, the contagious disease caused by the new coronavirus strain also has gotten a boost.
According to the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Houston region reached an all-time high Wednesday, with a total of 725 patients in general hospital beds and 349 in intensive care. There were 522 COVID-19 hospitalizations in Harris County alone, which also was a record.
“We may be tired of this virus, but this virus is not tired of us,” said Dr. Umair Shah, the executive director of Harris County Public Health.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, in a joint news conference Thursday with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, unveiled a threat level alert system that attempts to keep the public informed about the dangers of COVID-19 and mitigate the continued spread of the disease. The most significant threat is associated with Level 1, with Level 4 indicating that citizens can resume normal activities.
The color-coded system is debuting at Level 2, or orange, which signifies a “significant and uncontrolled level” of transmission within Harris County. As such, Hidalgo encouraged citizens to minimize contacts with others and avoid medium- to large-sized gatherings.
More information about the county’s COVID-19 threat level system is available at readyharris.org/stay-safe.
“I want the reopening to be successful, I want the economy to be resilient, but I’m growing increasingly concerned that we may be approaching the precipice of a disaster,” Hidalgo said. “If we get to that precipice of a disaster, we will not be in a position to reopen successfully.”
Harris County reported 102 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, with the City of Houston reporting an additional 210 new cases among its residents. In all, there have been 15,864 cases in the city and county, with the disease causing at least 267 deaths and 6,301 patients having recovered.
Hidalgo said hospitals in the region still have “plenty of capacity,” but that could change if the trend of increasing cases continues. She and Turner urged citizens to practice social distancing and wear masks when in public, along with washing their hands after touching high-contact surfaces and objects.
“Just govern yourselves accordingly,” Turner said. “Otherwise, we’ll get to the position where the spread will exceed our hospital capacity and we will find ourselves in deep trouble.”
Turner, Hidalgo and other local officials throughout the state no longer have the legal authority to force people to stay home or keep businesses closed, because that power was stripped of them by Abbott’s executive order. Turner said the local leaders can only use their public platforms to keep citizens informed about COVID-19 and its risk to the community.
Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department said the precautions taken by the community in March and April kept the region from experiencing an exponential spike in cases and kept hospital admissions low compared to some other parts of the country. He said the subsequent increase is not the result of “one single event,” but instead a product of the statewide reopenings and larger-than-usual gatherings during holidays such as Mother’s Day and Memorial Day.
The local officials said they did not yet know the impact of the recent citywide protests of racial injustice and police brutality — including a May 30 march downtown that drew an estimated 60,000 demonstrators — because COVID-19 symptoms may not appear until at least two weeks after a person is infected.
“As a community, we were doing a great job,” Persse said of March and April. “It shows that it can work. We just need to do it again.”