Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a “Stay Home, Work Safe” order for Harris County that went into effect at midnight this morning, instructing all persons in the county to stay at their place of residence except for limited essential reasons.
The restrictions allow leaving for essential shopping, such as groceries and supplies needed to work from home. Restaurants may remain open for take-out, delivery and drive-through service. Restaurants are also instructed to take measures to keep space between customers who come to pick up food.
Businesses defined by the Department of Homeland Security as being critical infrastructure are also allowed to continue operating, though they are encouraged to allow employees to work from home if possible and to use social distancing practices for those who have to work on site.
Critical infrastructure sectors include health care, public safety, food and agriculture, energy, water and wastewater, transportation and logistics, public works, communication and information technology, government, critical manufacturing, financial services, chemical and defense.
Hidalgo said residents are allowed, even encouraged, to get outdoors as long as they do so without gathering in groups and they maintain social distancing, which means avoiding gathering in groups of any size and maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from other people.
Parks and trails will remain open, she said, for walking, cycling and jogging, but playgrounds and other equipment that can harbor the coronavirus are off-limits.
Hidalgo said that while the county and other law enforcement agencies have the ability to enforce the rules, she expects that most people will comply voluntarily.
Lt. Steve Dorris, Baytown police spokesman, said “First, let me say that we support the stay at home order; the sooner we can get a handle on this virus spreading the better.
“As far as our role in enforcing those orders, we are strongly encouraging members of our community to stay home unless it is absolutely necessary to get out for the essentials, which is allowed under the current orders.
“While we are still enforcing the law during this trying time, we are not out in force specifically searching for people not staying home; we do not believe that is in the spirit of the orders or the intent. Our number one priority is the safety of our citizens as well as our officers.”
Dorris said that in the Chambers County portion of the city that is covered by a curfew, officers are not specifically looking for violators, but will deal with violations they come across on a case-by-case basis.
Dr. Marc Boom, CEO of the Houston Methodist Hospital system, said he has a daily conference call with other Texas Medical Center CEO’s and “we are unanimous in our support of this decision.”
He said data from other countries and cities shows that each person infected with COVID-19 will, on average, infect two to three additional people. If that number is not reduced, he said, the spread will soon overwhelm the health care system.
Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of the Harris Health System said New York, Seattle and San Francisco are examples of what can happen if the virus spreads too fast.
“We can prevent the devastating impact of this virus by coming together by staying apart,” he said.
He went back to the familiar theme of “flattening the curve”—meaning that the peak number of infections will be both later and fewer.
“It makes a huge difference if whatever the total number of cases—whether being 1,600, or 2,400, or 24,000 or 240,000—and the total number of cases that are going to arrive at our hospitals needing hospital care or critical care in terms of ventilator support. If it hits us next week and the surge comes over just a two-week period of time or if it comes to us next month and the surge is spread over a two-month period of time, it makes a huge difference.”
Not only does a later surge mean a lower peak, he said, but it also allows more time to understand the disease and its treatment and to obtain much-needed supplies.
Hidalgo said that in the first day of widespread testing Monday, 24,000 people went through the online screening for COVID-19 risk. Of these, about 500 were tested at the two testing sites—right at the maximum capacity.
She said the supply of testing kits would only last through Tuesday unless promised additional stock arrives from the federal government.
Through late afternoon Tuesday, 79 cases have been confirmed in Harris County and one in Chambers County.