Previously set to expire May 20, the disaster declaration allows the county to adequately respond to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during the meeting. The declaration was first issued March 11.
"What we're using it for right now, most importantly, is reimbursements from [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], being able to submit those more easily and also, quick purchasing, obviously, in terms of issuing orders, the governor has pretty much taken that authority, so right now it's a matter of being able to do the purchasing and the FEMA reimbursement," she said.
During the meeting, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he felt Harris County was approaching the recovery phase of the pandemic as opposed the emergency phase. He requested the county auditor's office and county attorney's office return to the next Commissioners Court meeting with reports on what further pandemic-related purchases the county might need to make to evaluate what potential purchases could be put in jeopardy if the county moved from a state of emergency to a state of recovery.
"It seems like we've done a pretty good job in the county with regard to the curve and our percentages that are being impacted," Cagle said. "As you have said, everyone still needs to be careful and cautious and needs to be safe, but we still have a great deal of hospital bed availability; we have a great recovery rate, especially compared to the state and the rest of the nation; and our percentage of population [that has the coronavirus] is fairly low. ... We're now more in that recovery phase as opposed to the crisis phase."
However, Hidalgo said while she was in favor of the reports, she believes the county is still very much in an emergency state.
"We're not in recovery. We just had 118 new cases yesterday. ... We had a pseudo army of 296 contact tracers as of yesterday. ... We're meeting virtually because ... one of the council members came down positive at the city of Houston—the virus hasn't gone anywhere," Hidalgo said. "It's a very strange thing; we've fallen into a bit of a new normal; but that doesn't mean [we're in recovery]. We may well be in the eye of the hurricane. I hope we're not."
Hidalgo said she was concerned that by lifting the emergency state, residents would become less cautious about their personal health, which could lead to future outbreaks. She added most other major Texas counties are likewise continuing to extend their respective disaster declarations into the month of June.
"If you look at the curves from the Spanish flu, you see one little curve and then there's a much bigger one later because I guess folks thought they beat the first curve and they were done, and so that's what we really can't let happen," Hidalgo said. "There's no such thing as a halfway disaster [declaration]. We're still in this disaster, [and] if things come back I may need this authority."
Precincts 1 and 2 Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia agreed with Hidalgo that the county is still in an emergent state, and the motion to extend the disaster declaration passed unanimously.
The court will consider further extending the disaster declaration at its next regularly scheduled meeting June 9.