Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday extended her stay-at-home order through April 30, as cases of novel coronavirus infections in the Houston area continue to rise, three county officials with knowledge of the plan said.
Hidalgo could further lengthen or shorten the duration of the order, depending on the success of efforts to combat the outbreak, the sources said.
The original stay-at-home measure, which closed most businesses and prohibits public gatherings of any kind, is set to expire Friday. Health experts say extending the restrictions to daily life are necessary to prevent a spike in cases that could overwhelm hospitals.
Hidalgo signaled at a news conference Monday that she would do so.
“It’s not a matter of if the stay-at-home order will be extended; it’s a question of for how long,” she said.
Violations of the order are punishable with fines or jail time, though Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said authorities have yet to make any arrests. She said her investigators have answered about 2,500 calls from residents with questions and focused enforcement efforts on reminding businesses of the rules.
The rules are the most restrictive in a series of steps taken by local officials this month to limit interactions between people that can spread the highly communicable virus. Turner ordered the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo closed on March 11. Hidalgo closed bars and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery on March 16.
I know it feels like forever, but the Harris County stay-at-home order was issued eight days ago. HISD was closed beginning March 13, and I’d say most people who could work from home began doing so on the 16th, so we’re a bit more than two weeks into this. And speaking of the schools:
Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday told Texans to stay at home for the next month unless they are taking part in essential services and activities, announcing a heightened statewide standard to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. He also announced that schools would remain closed until at least May 4.
During a news conference at the Texas Capitol, Abbott declined to call his latest executive order a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order, arguing such labels leave the wrong impression and that he wants Texans to know, for example, they can still go to the grocery store. But in an interview afterward, he said “it’s a fact” that the executive order nonetheless brings Texas up to speed with states that have issued orders with those labels.
“States that have adopted stay-at-home policies or even some that use shelter in place are very close to ours, which is, if you had to put a label on it, it would be ‘essential service and activities only,'” Abbott said. “If you’re not engaged in an essential service or activity, then you need to be at home for the purpose of slowing the spread of COVID-19.”
The state has outlined a list of more than a dozen sectors that provide essential services that comply with Abbott’s order, which is largely aligned with federal guidance on the issue. Those include health care, energy, food and critical manufacturing. Texas’ list adds religious services, which are not included in federal guidance.
The order goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday and lasts until April 30, aligning it with the new end date that President Donald Trump announced Monday for social-distancing guidelines.
The order supersedes one that Abbott issued March 19 that limited social gatherings to 10 people, among other things. The new order narrows that standard significantly, asking Texans to “minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.”
In using terms like “minimize,” the order’s language stops short of explicitly banning nonessential activity. But Abbott made clear he expects all Texans to adhere to the guidance or face criminal punishment — and that there is only wiggle room in the language to account for potential “exceptions to the rule.”
“You never know what the exception would be, like let’s say there’s some emergency where you have to go do something or whatever the case may be,” he said. “And you don’t want to get people subject to being in violation of a law for a lack of clarity.”
At the news conference, Abbott encouraged churches to conduct their services remotely but said that if they must meet in person, they should follow the federal social-distancing guidelines.
“I’m unaware of a church that would want its constituents, its parishioners, to be exposed to COVID-19, and I think there’s enough public information right now for them to be aware of the practices that are needed to make sure that their members don’t contract COVID-19,” Abbott said in the interview.
Still not a statewide shelter-in-place order, which the Texas Hospital Association and Texas Nurses Association are calling for, but it is what it is. As for that exception for religious services, we’ll see what that means.
Abbott said religious services should either be conducted remotely or in-person using social distancing guidelines. He added that “drive-up services,” where congregants would remain in their cars, which some churches plan to use this Easter, would “satisfy the criteria that we’re talking about.”
David Duncan, pastor of Houston’s Memorial Church of Christ, said he appreciates Abbott’s recognition of the “importance of religion.” But he added, “The second greatest command is to love our neighbors as ourselves. For me, at this moment, the way I love my neighbor is by giving them physical distance.”
Many congregations moved away from in-person gatherings prior to orders by local officials, including one by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo that banned gatherings. Hidalgo said Tuesday afternoon that the county was reviewing Abbott’s order.
“We will continue doing what we have been doing,” said Mike Miller, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Jacksonville. “Gathering crowds in any way that would make 6-foot separation impossible is not acting responsibly.”
Josh Ellis, head of Houston’s association of Southern Baptist churches, declined to comment on Abbott’s order.
Ellis did, however, advise churches to continue suspending in-person services. “Ministry is essential, and continues, while continuing to keep the most people safe,” he said.
The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which suspended in-person services earlier this month, also said it is reviewing the governor’s order.
We’ll see if this has any effect on the Hotze death wish lawsuit. I still think the full-on ban was the correct move, mostly because assholes like Hotze have now demonstrated they don’t give a shit about anyone else, but if this avoids a nasty court ruling, I can accept it.
(By the way, has Dan Patrick been a little quieter than usual lately, or am I imagining it? Just wondering.)