Most of the businesses already were closed, and the few that were still open had hardly any customers. There were even fewer people walking down West 19th Street, typically one of the busiest thoroughfares in the Heights, late Monday afternoon.
As for parking along the street, plenty was available.
“It’s sad,” said Heights resident Alex Keys, who had just picked up an early dinner from Torchy’s Tacos at the corner of 19th and Ashland streets. “Super sad.”
The crowds on 19th Street, and throughout the rest of Houston, likely will become even smaller during the remainder of March. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, in a joint announcement with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, issued a stay-at-home, work-safe order Tuesday morning in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep the region’s healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed.
The order, which went into effect Wednesday and will last through April 3, limits the operation of non-essential businesses and requires most residents of the county, including the City of Houston, to stay home except to buy groceries and household items, obtain medical care and care for family members and pets at other locations. Faith leaders will be allowed to have one-on-one interaction with parishioners, although in-person church services are restricted. People can go outside to exercise and parks will remain open, although people must maintain at least 6 feet distance from each other, and the use of high-traffic areas such as playgrounds, benches and sport courts will be prohibited.
Hidalgo and Turner said their decision was guided by the region’s healthcare community, which is seeing a sharp uptick in patients infected with the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus.
“To be honest, it was not a hard decision based on the data,” Hidalgo said. “If we follow this, we will save lives.”
Businesses in essential industries — including public works, law enforcement and government functions, transportation and manufacturing businesses, healthcare services, news media and several types of retail businesses — will be allowed to continue operating and must adhere to social distancing guidelines. Restaurants can remain open as long as they are restricted to carryout, drive-through and delivery services, which has been the case since March 17.
See the complete list of essential businesses, as outlined by Hidalgo, at the bottom of this story.
“We want the people in our region … to recognize this situation is serious, to recognize that if we don’t act now, then the situation will get worse,” Turner said.
Since Fort Bend County officials announced the Houston area’s first positive test for COVID-19 on March 4, the number of cases in the region has steadily risen as testing capacity has increased. The City of Houston reported 31 new cases Tuesday, bringing its total to 55. Harris County reported 25 new cases, bringing its total to 79. One of those 134 people has died, while 15 have recovered.
According to the World Health Organization, which earlier this month declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, there have been more than 375,000 confirmed cases in 195 different countries, including more than 42,000 cases in the U.S. The disease has led to more than 16,300 deaths globally.
“We can defeat this virus,” said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System. “We can prevent the devastating impact of this virus by coming together by staying part. We can do this.”
While the stay-at-home order may very well save lives, it also could upend the livelihoods of several business owners and workers whose employers must close at least temporarily. Multiple local restaurants already had closed because of the dining-room restrictions, and shopping centers that typically are bustling have been sparsely visited.
The group of restaurants and bars on White Oak Drive in the Heights was virtually empty on Monday afternoon, with plenty of parking spaces available. Strip centers around the Garden Oaks and Oak Forest neighborhoods looked much the same.
Two business owners on 19th Street — Erica Del Gardo of Erica Del Gardo Jewelry Designs and Crystal Kirksey of boutique Jubilee — both said Monday afternoon that they expected a stay-at-home order to be issued. Now that it’s happened, it could have a significant impact on their businesses.
Kirksey said foot traffic already was down about “95 percent” along 19th Street, where there are clothing stores, bookstores, antique shops and hair salons that are considered non-essential and must close.
“Hopefully we won’t lose our store,” Kirksey said.
Here is a complete list of essential businesses that can remain open, per Hidalgo’s order:
Essential Critical Infrastructure.
Work necessary to the operations and maintenance of the 16 critical infrastructure sectors identified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security National Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), provided that they carry out those services or that work in compliance with social distancing requirements of six feet to the extent possible. Essential Businesses providing essential infrastructure should implement screening precautions to protect employees and all activities shall be performed in compliance with social distancing guidelines.
Essential Government Functions.
All services provided by local governments and municipalities located in Harris County needed to ensure their continuing operation to provide for the health, safety and welfare of the public, including law enforcement, jail operations and other services. Further, nothing in this Order shall prohibit any individual from performing “Essential Government Functions”. All Essential Government Functions shall be performed in compliance with social distancing requirements of six feet to the extent possible.
Essential City of Houston Government Functions.
All services provided by the City of Houston that the Mayor of the City of Houston determines to be essential Government Functions. Further, nothing in this Order shall prohibit any individual from performing “Essential Government Functions”. All Essential Government Functions shall be performed in compliance with social distancing requirements of six feet to the extent possible.
Essential Healthcare Operations.
Healthcare operations, including hospitals, clinics, dentists, pharmacies, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, other healthcare facilities, healthcare suppliers, mental health providers, substance abuse service providers, blood banks, medical research, laboratory services, or any related and/or ancillary healthcare services. Home-based and residential-based care for seniors, adults, or children are also considered healthcare operations. Healthcare operations also include veterinary care and all health and welfare services provided to animals. This exemption shall be viewed broadly to avoid any impacts to the delivery of healthcare.
Food producers and service providers, including grocery stores, warehouse stores, furniture suppliers, big box stores, bodegas, liquor stores, gas stations and convenience stores, farmers’ markets that sell food products and household staples. Food cultivation, including farming, ranching, fishing, and livestock. Food production, including the production of canned goods, bottled beverages and other grocery items. Businesses that ship or deliver groceries, food, goods or services directly to residences. Restaurants and other facilities that prepare and serve food, but only for delivery, drive-thru or carry-out. Schools and other entities that typically provide free services to students or members of the public on a pick-up and take-away basis only. The restriction of delivery or carry-out does not apply to cafes and restaurants located within hospital and medical facilities. Laundromats, dry cleaners, and laundry service providers. Gas stations, auto supply, auto and bicycle repair, hardware stores, and related facilities. Businesses that supply products needed for people to work from home.
Providers of Basic Necessities to Economically Disadvantaged Populations.
Businesses that provide food, shelter, and social services, and other necessities of life for economically disadvantaged or otherwise needy individuals.
Essential Services Necessary to Maintain Essential Operations of Residences or Other Essential Businesses.
Trash and recycling collection, processing and disposal, mail and shipping services, building cleaning, maintenance and security, warehouse/distribution and fulfillment, storage for essential businesses, funeral homes, crematoriums and cemeteries. Plumbers, electricians, exterminators, yard and maintenance crews, housekeepers, janitorial staff, pool cleaners and other service providers who provide services that are necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation, and essential operations of residences and Essential Businesses. Professional services, such as legal or accounting services, when necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities. Businesses that supply other Essential Businesses with support or utilities needed to operate. Caregivers and helpers who provide services to seniors and disabled individuals.
Newspapers, television, radio, and other media services.
Childcare and Adult Care Services.
Childcare and adult care facilities providing services that enable employees exempted in this Order to work as permitted.
Infrastructure, Development, Operation and Construction.
For example, public works construction, construction of housing or other types of construction including commercial, manufacturing, airport operations and aircraft manufacturing, maintenance or repair, water, sewer, gas, electrical, oil refining, roads and highways, public transportation, solid waste collection and removal, internet, and telecommunications systems (including the provision of essential global, national, and local infrastructure for computing services, business infrastructure, communications, and web-based services).
Businesses related to the operation, maintenance, construction, and manufacture of transportation services.For example, (a) vehicle manufacturers, automotive suppliers and parts departments, car dealerships, parts distributors, maintenance and repair facilities;(b)public transportation;(c)businesses supporting airport operations;(d)street and highway maintenance and construction;(e) gas stations and other fuel distribution businesses;(f)vehicles for hire, including public transportation services, Uber, Lyft, and taxicabs, that enable persons to travel to or from employers, service providers, or businesses exempted in this Order. People riding on public transit must comply with the six-foot social distancing requirements to the greatest extent feasible.
Labor union functions.
Critical labor union functions, including the maintenance of health and welfare funds and checking on the well-being and safety of members.
NASA and Port of Houston.
Activities of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Port of Houston.
Airports and related operations.
Airport and airline activities, operations, maintenance and repairs, and the hotels that serve these Essential Businesses.
Professional services, such as legal or accounting services, insurances services, and “real estate services” when necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities or to further Essential Businesses, Essential Government functions, or Critical Infrastructure.