Stay-at-home order given for all nonessential employees in Harris County
County Judge Lina Hidalgo (center), Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Public Health Executive Director Umair A. Shah spoke at a March 5 press conference about Harris County's first confirmed COVID-19 cases. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
The order applies to all residents in Harris County, including the unincorporated areas and all cities within the county. Officials said the order is meant to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and its disease, COVID-19.
"Any delay in additional action would be incredibly problematic," Hidalgo said at a March 24 press conference. "By staying home, we are saving lives, we are flattening the curve of the virus, and we are not overwhelming our health care system and our community as a whole."
Under the order, all public gatherings outside of a single household are prohibited, and all businesses that are not considered essential must cease operations. Essential businesses are based on guidelines set out by the federal Cybersecurity Infrastructure Agency and include jobs in the energy sector, health care, transportation and critical manufacturing, among others.
"The idea is to maintain the supply chain of these essential sectors across localities," Hidalgo said.
Restaurants will continue to be allowed to provide delivery, takeout and drive-thru services. Residents are allowed to leave the house for essential travel, including trips to grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and to seek medical treatment. Residents can also go outside to exercise and go to parks but will be barred from playing on playgrounds and using public exercise equipment. All residents who leave the house—whether to shop, go to the park or go to work—are required to practice social distancing and maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from other people.
Day cares that provide support for essential employees will remain open. Faith leaders can also host one-on-one sessions with people for mental health or spiritual health purposes but must practice social distancing, Hidalgo said.
Over the past week, Hidalgo said hospital CEOs in Harris County have reported an exponential increase in people coming to the hospital as well as the percentage of patients who need to be treated and the length of time patients need to stay in intensive care.
Dr. Mark Boom, the CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital System, said he has been coordinating with other hospital leaders across the region to provide guidance to city and county officials. He said hospitals are at around 70% of adult capacity and 90% of pediatric capacity across the city.
"We have looked at modeling that says the time to act is now," Boom said at the March 24 conference. "Every piece of data we see coming in from our institutions says the time to act is now ... Once this gets out of control, it is extremely difficult to control and bring back down."
Turner said he recognized the strain the order places on the local economy and on business owners. He said the order is the most strategic way to blunt the spread of COVD-19 while balancing the needs of families, businesses and the city's economic interests.
"In order not to prolong this crisis, in order to blunt the progression of this virus, we both recognize that steps need to be taken ... so we are not in the situation longer than we need to be," Turner said.
Enforcement of the order will be left to the discretion of law enforcement, Hidalgo said. Violators could face a fine and up to 180 days in jail, she said.
"If folks are willingly violating the order in a way that puts other people at risk, we will work with law enforcement, but I really believe and trust that folks will comply because this about the health of all of us," she said.
In a statement, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, criticized the order as being draconian and questioned why a mandatory order was necessary.
"Anecdotal evidence around Harris County indicates that residents have already taken substantial steps to comply with the existing guidelines," he wrote. "With the lion share of residents in compliance, what specific examples of non-compliance have changed your mind since your press conference yesterday morning?"
At the press conference, both Hidalgo and Turner emphasized the goal is not to shut the city down.
"The recommendations [the experts have] made so far—what the data tells us so far—is not that we have to shut down the county or city of Houston; it's that we have to stay home and allow essential businesses to continue and that those essential businesses must do their absolute best to enforce social distancing," Hidalgo said.
Hidalgo and Turner previously ordered all bars in the county to close and all restaurants to end their dine-in services.
Harris County commissioners are expected to continue discussing coronavirus response at a regularly scheduled Commissioners Court meeting that began at 10 a.m. Among other agenda items, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia is requesting approval for an agreement with the Lift Fund that would provide the county with $10 million in four-year, no-interest loans to small businesses affected by the pandemic.