Going out for a green beer, an American tradition on St. Patrick’s Day, will not happen in Houston this year.
Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced Monday that all bars and clubs in the city and unincorporated parts of the county will close for at least 15 days beginning at 8 a.m. Tuesday as public health officials seek to slow the spread of COVID-19, the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus. Hidalgo also said restaurants will be restricted to take-out, drive-through and delivery services, meaning dining rooms and watering holes all across the area will be closed.
Hidalgo also warned Houston-area residents to “stay home and stay away from crowds” unless venturing out is necessary for things such as groceries and medications.
“The reality is we’re at a pivotal point right now,” Hidalgo said. “The decisions we make, the decisions you make, to go out in groups and whether to stay home will very much determine whether people live or die.”
City and county officials already had encouraged people to avoid large crowds and telecommute for work if possible. Hidalgo and Turner said prior recommendations were not being sufficiently heeded, leading to the broader restrictions for the public.
Earlier Monday, President Donald Trump and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Americans to avoid crowds of 10 people or more as COVID-19 cases continue to climb. According to the World Health Organization, there have been more than 168,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including nearly 1,700 in the United States, and it has led to more than 6,600 deaths globally.
Locally, health officials have reported about 30 cases in the Houston area, including five within the city limits and eight in unincorporated Harris County.
Turner, who last week announced that all city-sponsored events would be closed through the end of March, said Monday that the policy has been extended through the end of April. Multiple Houston-area school districts, including HISD, announced Monday that they would be closed through at least the first week or two of April.
“The goal is very direct, and that is to slow down the progression of this coronavirus, COVID-19, so it doesn’t overwhelm our healthcare system,” Turner said.
The bar ban and restaurant restrictions impact several businesses in the Heights, Garden Oaks and Oak Forest areas, as well as regular patrons of restaurants and bars. With schools closed for Spring Break as well as because of COVID-19, many Houstonians are home with their children.
Over the weekend, Hidalgo and Turner said, crowds at bars and restaurants were too large. Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin, who represents a large portion of the area in District C, echoed that sentiment.
“I have received numerous emails, phone calls and social media outreach from concerned constituents that many bars in the area, especially with St. Patrick’s Day (coming Tuesday), have been overly crowded,” Kamin said.
Officials in other large U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas, already had issued restrictions on bars and restaurants.
The Houston area followed suit, just hours after Turner and executives from three grocery chains in the region assured residents that their food supplies are ample. H-E-B, Kroger and Randall’s have limited their hours amidst long lines and emptying shelves at Houston-area stores, which are being overloaded by people trying to stock up on items such as water, food, soap, hand sanitizer and toilet paper.
H-E-B president Scott McClelland said the Texas-based chain will be expanding its curbside pickup service and limiting customer flow into its stores and implementing safety measures, such as installing clear windows between customers and cashiers. McClelland also asked customers to refrain from panic-buying and stockpiling, saying the company is regularly restocking its shelves and equipped to do so for the foreseeable future.
Turner encouraged Houstonians to try to remain patient along with staying safe.
“This is different from a hurricane. You can look at the radar and know when it’s going to hit and when it’s going to leave,” Turner said. “This is totally different. … We simply have to manage and have to pace ourselves. We’re going to be in this situation for the next several weeks if not several months.”