March 25 is the first day new restrictions have gone into place in Harris County and its cities under the Stay Home-Work Safe order. The order is intended to reduce physical interactions among residents and limit the spread of the coronavirus.

The coronavirus is easily spread through person-to-person contact, especially in group settings, according to the order, and local medical experts said the new restrictions are required to prevent hospitals in Harris County from becoming overwhelmed with new cases.

Community Impact Newspaper reporters are answering readers' questions about what this means for them and their families. If you have additional questions, please reach out to us via social media or at [email protected]

What is a stay-at-home order?

The order, referred to as Stay Home-Work Safe, requires all individuals anywhere in Harris County to stay at home except for certain employees who are deemed part of the essential workforce for maintaining the health and safety of the community as well as those who provide essential business services and essential government services. Residents may leave their homes only for certain essential activities, and they must maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from one another when in shared spaces.

The federal government has previously instructed residents to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people. Under the stay home order in Harris County, social gatherings outside of an individual home are prohibited. Nonessential businesses are required to cease operations at facilities within the county while the order is in effect. However, those businesses are allowed to continue operating on a work-from-home basis.

If someone tests positive for coronavirus, all residents of the household are required to stay at home until cleared by a public health authority or medical provider.

Find the full text of the Harris County order here.

How long will the order last?

The order will end at 11:59 p.m. on April 3.

What is the difference between a stay-at-home order and a shelter-in-place order?

Stay-at-home orders are more lenient when it comes to the reasons for which a person can leave their house. Under a shelter-in-place order, residents are required to stay in their homes at all costs and are not allowed to travel even for essential errands.

For which activities can I leave my home?

Residents are allowed to leave their homes for activities deemed essential. These include obtaining medical supplies or medication; visiting health care professionals; obtaining supplies needed to work from home; obtaining or delivering necessary supplies, such as food, pet supplies or sanitary supplies; caring for a family member or pet in another household; and performing work duties as a part of an essential business.

Individuals are allowed to go to public parks and open outdoor recreational areas, but all public playgrounds have been closed. Residents are also instructed not to sit on benches or picnic tables and avoid touching surfaces.

Which businesses are considered essential?

The county’s order defines an essential business based on the 16 critical infrastructure segments identified by the National Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. They include:

  • government functions

  • health care operations (broadly defined to include hospitals, clinics, dentists, pharmacies, mental health providers, blood banks and veterinary services, among others)

  • essential retail

  • businesses that provide food, shelter or social services to the economically disadvantaged

  • essential services

  • news media

  • child care and adult care facilities catering to essential workers

  • infrastructure, development, operation and construction

  • transportation

  • labor union functions

  • NASA and the Port of Houston

  • airports

  • professional services

Which retail businesses are and are not considered essential?

The order allows the following “essential” retail businesses to remain open: grocery stores, warehouse stores, big-box stores, furniture suppliers, liquor stores, bodegas, gas stations, convenience stores, and farmers markets that sell food products and household staples. Others include laundromats; dry cleaners; auto supply and repair shops; hardware stores; and any business related to food cultivation, food production and businesses that deliver food, goods or services directly to residences.

Several business types were specifically named in the order as having to close, including gyms; fitness centers; any facility used for martial arts, training, sport or recreation; hair and nail salons; spas; licensed massage businesses; tattoo parlors; concert halls; live performance theaters; arenas; stadiums; movie theaters; game rooms; bowling alleys; arcades; indoor and outdoor flea markets and swap meets; indoor malls; indoor shopping centers; and bingo halls.

Which types of service providers are still allowed to work?

Essential services, as defined by the order, include trash and recycling, mail, shipping, building maintenance and security, warehouse and distribution, storage for other essential businesses, funeral homes, crematoriums and cemeteries. Other service providers that have been deemed essential include plumbers, electricians, exterminators, yard and maintenance crews, housekeepers, janitorial workers and pool cleaners.

Certain professional service providers are also considered essential, including legal, accounting and insurance services, and in certain situations, real estate services.

I'm still not sure if I work for an essential business.

Any resident who still has a question about whether he or she works for an essential business can call a hotline set up by Harris County at [email protected].

What new restrictions are placed on restaurants?

Harris County closed all bars and ended dine-in service for restaurants March 19. The new order does not place any new restrictions on restaurants, which are still able to offer takeout, drive-thru, and delivery services of food and alcohol.

Can I go to church?

Religious and worship services can only be provided by video and teleconference. Faith leaders are allowed to counsel individuals in one-on-one settings but must follow social distancing guidelines.

Will my trash still get picked up?

Yes. Trash and recycling collection are considered essential services under the order to maintain operations at both residences and businesses that remain open. Essential government functions for all local cities in Harris County are also protected, including public works, law enforcement and jail operations.

Will my mail still get delivered?

According to the U.S. Postal Service website, it is considered an essential service delivering critical items such as medication and Social Security checks, and therefore service will continue on after the order was declared. Mail delivery and shipping are also considered essential services under the Harris County order.

How does this affect transportation?

The construction, maintenance and operation of different elements of transportation infrastructure have been deemed essential under the order, including public transportation; road maintenance and construction; gas stations; rideshare services, such as Uber and Lyft; airports; and car dealerships.

How is the order being enforced?

Law-enforcement agencies in Harris County have been granted the authority to enforce the order. Violators could face a fine of no more than $1,000 and jail time of up to 180 days.

At a March 24 press conference, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said law-enforcement officers have the discretion to decide punishments in individual scenarios.

“We are not a police state,” she said. “We are relying on folks to do their part. I trust that they will. If folks are willingly violating the order in a way that puts other people at risk, we will work with law enforcement.”