After several days of speculation and confused communications, this week Harris County will implement orders designed to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, or COVID19, in the state’s most populous county.
Residents of the Houston and Harris County area first learned of a possible “shelter-in-place” order over the weekend when Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins announced his county’s new actions. Jenkins said that he had spoken to Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) and that she was “committed to doing the same…soon.”
Although Hidalgo declined to comment Sunday night, at a Monday morning press conference she told residents that the county would not be implementing new orders at that time, but added that she was collaborating with other local leaders to determine the next appropriate steps.
Hidalgo also advised that “shelter-in-place” was not the right terminology for a region that had experienced truly strict orders during natural disasters, chemical spills, and criminal shootings.
Responding to a KPRC Houston reporter as to why residents learned about possible new orders first from the Dallas County Judge, Hidalgo answered, “I can’t control what other folks say. Judge Jenkins and I generally work very closely together.”
Less than 24 hours later, Hidalgo joined Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in a press conference to announce that the county would implement “stay-home-work-safe” orders in lieu of a true “shelter-in-place.”
During the Tuesday morning presser, Hidalgo said that the Harris County policy would require residents to stay home except when engaging in “essential activities,” and that most businesses must cease operations except for those in one of 16 critical infrastructure sectors as defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Hidalgo and Turner explained that the new order would go into effect at 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday evening, but were unable to provide specifics since the text of the order had not yet been completed.
Later Tuesday during the regularly scheduled meeting of the Harris County Commissioners Court, Hidalgo explained to fellow commissioners that she and her team were still working on the documentation for the stay-home-work-safe order and that the county’s legal department also needed to review the terms.
The gap between the announcement and actual specifics of the order available led to some confusion and frustration in the local business community.
On Tuesday afternoon, State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) vented on social media saying, “It is after 2 pm, no order yet and less than half a day for 100k business to comply…”
Houston City Councilmember Amy Peck also expressed frustration saying, “A press conference to completely change everyone’s world, and the actual order that governs it isn’t ready yet for release?? There are thousands of people on edge waiting to see if they have jobs tomorrow.”
A few hours later, officials posted the text of the stay-home-work-safe order on the county website.
Less draconian than orders in other parts of the country, the Harris County declaration requires closure of gyms and other physical training facilities, hair and nail salons, and all entertainment venues.
Exemptions include broadly defined essential services, such as food supply, health care, energy and communications industries, along with furniture suppliers and liquor stores. “Critical” labor union functions are also exempted.
Not exempted are religious and worship services, although the county says faith leaders may “minister and counsel in individual settings, so long as social distance protocols are followed.”
During the Tuesday morning press conference, Judge Hidalgo warned that violators could face fines and up to 180 days in jail, but added, “We are not a police state.”
Later, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo pledged his department would “use common sense and courtesy,” and apply compassion in asking residents to comply.
At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners voted to extend the county’s disaster declaration through April 29, provide as much as $1 million for extra support to the homeless community, and waive tolls on the county’s toll roads for the next month.
Citing potential coronavirus threats in the county’s jail, Harris County judges released new General Order Bond guidelines last Friday, and some judges are releasing even murder suspects on personal bond.
As of Wednesday morning, the Harris County Public Health department had reported 134 confirmed cases of coronavirus/COVID19, and one death, with confirmed cases spiking Tuesday as testing becomes more available.
Harris County has provided an online pre-screening tool to determine eligibility for testing, and Hidalgo says they can test 250 patients per day as long as the county continues to receive supplies from the federal government.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Cypress, Texas. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.