HOUSTON (CN) — With Texas Governor Greg Abbott declining to issue sweeping directives to stop the spread of the coronavirus, county leaders across the state are implementing stay-at-home orders at the urging of hospital officials who warn the measures cannot wait.
“You can’t flip the switch and turn the lights off on a county of 5 million people and that’s not what this is,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Tuesday morning, announcing a stay-at-home order that will take effect Wednesday at midnight. In Texas, counties’ chief executives are called county judges.
There are no delays on freeways typically snarled with bumper-to-bumper traffic in the county seat Houston and the smattering of cars parked downtown seem oddly out of place.
Hidalgo said the CEOs of hospitals in the Texas Medical Center in Houston, the largest conglomeration of health care facilities in the world, have sounded the alarm about an exponential increase in patients.
The county does not want to be in the position of “having to turn people away from a respirator in an ICU bed and choosing who lives and dies,” Hidalgo said.
“That would be catastrophic and the models we have show us getting to that position where we far exceed the number of ICU units in this county unless we take drastic steps,” she said.
Though coronavirus testing centers opened in the Houston area on Saturday, they were reserved for police, firefighters, EMTs and health care workers.
Hidalgo said Harris County opened two sites to testing for the general public Monday.
“We referred about 500 people to two sites, that’s 100% of our testing capacity,” she said, adding the sites will have to shut down if the county does not receive an expected shipment of test kits from the federal government on Tuesday.
Greater Houston residents are advised to stay home unless they need to go out for groceries, to visit a family member’s household, to see a doctor or pick up medications at a pharmacy.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner spoke after Hidalgo, saying the order exempts health care workers and those working in transportation, at water treatment plants, residential and commercial construction and at the Port of Houston.
Hidalgo said day cares that look after the children of essential workers can stay open.
“Parks can stay open. No playgrounds, no exercise equipment, no benches, nothing that can be touched, because we know the virus can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours,” she said.
Hidalgo added, “We hope and trust people will comply, but we will be ready to enforce this order.”
But Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said he did not expect any trouble.
“When we think they’re doing something that’s in violation of this order, we’re going to ask people to comply, and we believe that by using some compassion and common courtesy, we’ll be able to be just fine,” he told local media.
Mayor Turner said 160 people in the Houston area have tested positive, including 24 within the city limits. “But we know there are more than that,” he said.
Turner said the measures should not be misconstrued as a shelter-in-place order.
“We have faced major storms. We have faced mass shootings. We have faced chemical releases. And in those times we have asked people to shelter in place. And that terminology ‘shelter in place’ should be reserved for shootings, explosions, major storm events like Harvey,” he said.
Harris County’s order will remain in place until April 3, in line with an executive order Governor Abbott issued last week telling bars and schools to close and restaurants to only offer pick up or drive-through service.
“We will revisit as necessary,” Hidalgo said.
In the state capital Austin, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt held a press conference at noon with other local officials.
“Covid-19 depends on us to pass it from person to person. We will have a small window of opportunity to flatten the curve of infection,” she said, before unveiling the county’s own stay-at-home order.
“It means we are asking our community to stay home to the greatest extent possible…If it is not an essential activity, or an essential business,” Eckhardt said.
Dr. Mark Escott, Austin’s interim medical director, said there are 86 confirmed cases in Travis County, but modeling from experts at the University of Texas suggests that without a social-distancing order, hospitals would be overwhelmed within three weeks.
“If we allow business as usual, we will need to provide 20,000 hospital beds per day for our community,” he said
He recommended that all schools in the area shut down for the rest of the school year.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler issued a parallel order Tuesday. The city’s order will carry the force of the law as violators can be charged with a misdemeanor fine up to $1,000 and jailed a maximum of 180 days. It goes through April 13.
The area’s economy has already been dealt a major blow by the virus with the cancellation this month of South by Southwest, a music and technology festival attended by more than 100,000 people in 2019.
Officials in San Antonio gained some early experience with the virus as hundreds of Americans evacuated from China and two cruise ships have been quarantined at Lackland Air Force Base since February.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg has worked closely with federal health officials to ensure that those who’ve been quarantined at the base are taken directly to the airport to travel to their homes and do not mingle with the city’s residents, especially after a scare early this month.
A woman was released from the base after twice testing negative for the virus and she stayed at a San Antonio hotel and visited a mall before a third test came back showing she was “weakly positive.”
Despite that ordeal, a woman in her 80s who died Saturday in hospice care was Bexar County’s first coronavirus victim, the San Antonio Express-News reported.
Bexar County, whose seat is San Antonio, has 32 residents who have tested positive for the virus, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Area officials announced their own stay-at-home order Monday.
Like Houston’s order, Austin’s and San Antonio’s will go into effect Wednesday at midnight.
Dallas County’s similar order went live Tuesday. Four people have died from the virus and 34 have been infected in Dallas County, the state health department says.