Harris County commissioners discussed several elements of how the county is responding to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic at a March 24 Commissioners Court meeting, including an extension of the disaster declaration and how the county will handle various vulnerable populations, such as the homeless and jail inmates.

In a 3-2 vote, commissioners approved a motion to extend the county's disaster declaration to April 29. The declaration gives the county power to make emergency-related purchases without court approval and gives Hidalgo some emergency powers to prevent people from congregating.

The move followed the announcement of a "Stay Home, Work Safe" order than came earlier that morning, which calls on all Harris County residents to stay home for anything that is not deemed "essential" travel.

The extension of the declaration was opposed by Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle. Cagle suggested extending the declaration to April 3, the same length of time as Gov. Greg Abbott's declaration for the state. He expressed similar concerns during a March 17 special Commissioners Court meeting about giving the county emergency authority for such a long period of time.

Tolls suspended

In a 3-2 vote, commissioners also voted to suspend all tolls on Harris County toll roads through April 29. Commissioners who supported the move said it was intended to provide economic relief to people who might be struggling with job loss or reduced wages in the wake of the coronavirus.

The motion was opposed by Radack and Cagle. Cagle questioned whether the county could afford the lost revenue and said the change also contradicted to the goal of trying to discourage people from unnecessary travel.

"If we are trying to discourage people from getting out and driving, making the toll roads free I think sends the wrong message," he said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said traffic is already significantly diminished on toll roads, and he did not think suspending tolls would have much of a greater effect in terms of lost revenue.

"This would just allow for mobility for those folks who still need to get around," he said. "We have to keep portions of our economy moving."

John Blount, the director of the Harris County Engineering Department, said as of March 23, toll roads were seeing about 60% of the revenue from a typical day.

'Ticking time bomb'

Roughly 8,500 people are currently in the Harris County Jail, including inmates arrested for nonviolent crimes, Hidalgo said. Officials are working on an initiative to create alternative spaces to house inmates to allow them to be in smaller groups, she said.

"It takes time to build the security functions at the different possible places," she said. "In that space of time, we still have this ticking time bomb. If we see an outbreak, there is not enough room to quarantine people."

Blount said the county has located several facilities to potentially relocate inmates. He said one of the critical facets of the plan is ensuring the Harris County Sheriff's Office has enough staff to adequately man the new facilities.

In a unanimous vote, commissioners approved a motion to allow inmates three additional free phone calls per week. In-person visits at the jail have been temporarily suspended.

Josh Stuckey, interim executive directory of the Harris County Community Services Department, said public health officials are also coming up with plan for the county's homeless population. For homeless individuals who are infected with COVID-19, the department will provide transportation to get them to a hospital and to an established shelter, he said.