Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and local health experts on Friday continued to implore the community to take precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19, which they said is infecting citizens and causing hospitalizations at a more rapid rate than the region has seen.
Hidalgo raised the county’s COVID-19 threat level system to red, its highest level, indicating severe and uncontrolled spread of the contagious disease caused by the new coronavirus. She also issued a stay-at-home advisory, which she said mirrors the stay-at-home, work safe order she issued in March, although she does not have the authority to enforce the recommendation through fines or arrests after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott stripped local officials of that power at the end of April.
Instead, Hidalgo, Turner and other local leaders urged Houston-area residents to protect themselves and others by avoiding crowds and wearing masks when in public, frequently washing their hands and staying at least 6 feet away from people who are not part of their household.
“I am not an alarmist if you know me. I’m not one to use incendiary or exaggerating language in any way,” said former Shell Oil executive Marvin Odum, the COVID-19 recovery czar for the City of Houston. “This virus is out of control in Houston. If we don’t act to get it under control, very bad, extremely bad things will happen — sickness, death and a rollback of our economy. If that won’t change behavior, I’m not sure what will.”
Earlier Friday, Abbott ordered the closure of all bars and nightclubs across the state — limiting them to to-go alcohol sales only — and said restaurants must reduce their dine-in capacities from 75 percent to 50 percent starting Monday, June 29. He also ordered the closure of rafting and tubing businesses and gave local officials the authority to limit the size of outdoor gatherings.
Hidalgo and Turner both said they would exercise that authority and support the governor’s decision to scale back his reopening of the state, which began in early May. On Thursday, Abbott said he was pausing any further phases of his reopening plan and suspending elective medical procedures in four Texas counties, including Harris County.
Hidalgo said Friday that Abbott reopened the state “too quickly,” which contributed to the spike in cases and hospitalizations in Houston. According to the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Harris County has more than tripled since the beginning of June.
Hidalgo said the region’s “current hospitalization rate is on pace to overwhelm hospitals in the near future.”
City and county officials have reported a total of 28,255 COVID-19 cases among residents, with the disease having caused at least 361 deaths and 9,711 patients having recovered.
“Clearly, things will be better because of what’s happened today and the last couple of days,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease expert for the Baylor College of Medicine. “Exactly how that will impact the inflection points in terms of reducing the very aggressive and very frightening slope, it’s too soon to say.”
Hidalgo and Turner expressed optimism that the Houston area can take action to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and prevent a catastrophe in the region. They asked citizens to take the threat seriously and take precautions on behalf of their fellow community members as well as themselves.
Hidalgo invoked the region’s response to Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when many Houstonians braved floodwaters to rescue friends, family members and even strangers.
“There are some who will say there’s no real cause for concern, that we can adjust to this, that there’s space in our hospitals’ surge capacity,” Hidalgo said. “When did we lose our respect for human life and the economy to the degree that we’re saying, ‘Let’s fill our ICU beds and surge capacity before we take any meaningful action?’ Since when did we decide as a society that instead of saving a life and preventing the spread of the virus, we would treat human lives, the lives of our neighbors, as collateral damage to be dealt with? It was this community, the residents of Harris County, that helped neighbors during Harvey. The respect for the lives of others was overwhelming.
“This pandemic is like an invisible hurricane where all of a sudden your neighborhood is flooding,” she added. “Your next door neighbor’s house is under water and nobody knows why. Yet courageous, big-hearted people put the lives of others first and braved dangerous floodwaters during Hurricane Harvey to rescue their stranded neighbors.
“Where are we today? … We have to remember who we are as a community. We can and must do more.”