Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that the Houston Health Department reported a record-high 18 new COVID-19 deaths within the city on Friday in an end of week press conference. The previous single-day record of 16 new deaths was reported on July 15.
Houston’s COVID-19 death toll now sits at 450, and there have been 729 coronavirus deaths reported in Harris County and Houston combined. The Houston Health Department reported 1,554 new COVID-19 cases within the city on Friday, which puts the cumulative total of confirmed cases between Harris County and Houston at 72,964 since the start of the pandemic.
Turner stressed that while local hospital occupancy levels have seen a slight decrease over the past week, the pandemic is still raging rapidly in the Houston area. Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department explained that while overall hospitalizations have decreased, there are still over 600 COVID-19 patients in local intensive care units. “This is not the time to drop our guard,” Persse said.
Out of the 450 confirmed COVID-19 deaths within Houston, 216 were reported in July compared to 95 in June and 73 in May, Turner said, before revealing that more new COVID-19 cases have been reported in the city over the past three days than in the entire month of May. “We have squandered already all the gains that we achieved in the months of March and April,” Turner said, after he reiterated his desire for Gov. Greg Abbott to give him the authority to “hit the reset button” and implement a temporary two-week lockdown in Houston to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The mayor cited these troubling statistics in a pointed barb toward Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who issued a guidance letter on Tuesday that said local health authorities don’t have the right to order school closures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“With all due respect to the State Attorney General… there is no way under the sun I would allow even my child [to] go to the school if these numbers are the same or greater by the end of August,” Turner said. Paxton’s view that local health authorities can’t close schools preemptively was parroted by Abbott in a statement issued Friday morning.
Turner also revealed a new relief fund for cash-strapped Houstonians who are having trouble making their rent payments thanks to COVID-19. The new fund currently sits at $19 million, $15 million of which was provided by federal CARES Act funds allotted to the City.
The remaining $4 million announced Friday was raised in the past 36 hours, with $2 million on the way from the Houston Endowment and $1 million donations from both the Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund and the Kinder Foundation. In addition to supporting rent obligations, Turner said part of the new fund will be allocated to Lone Star Legal Aid to assist their efforts to provide Houston tenants with free legal representation in eviction proceedings or rent dispute cases.
The new program is in line with Turner’s previously stated preference for financial assistance for renters as opposed to an eviction moratorium order, which has been recommended by the joint Houston and Harris County Housing Stability Taskforce. “This option removes the debt obligation instead of putting them further in debt with a moratorium that only deepens the financial hole,” Turner said.
In lieu of a formal eviction moratorium, Turner said the City is working closely with the Houston Apartment Association, a non-profit trade association of local landlords whose properties house over one million Houstonians. Turner claimed the HAA has agreed to voluntarily “provide a grace period” to tenants struggling to make rent payments.
HAA President Clay Hicks spoke during Friday’s press conference about the billions of dollars of rent fees that members of his organization have deferred since the start of the pandemic in addition to the millions of dollars in late rent fees they’ve waived, but he didn’t make any explicit promise that Houston landlords would offer the eviction grace period Turner mentioned in his remarks.
As opposed to the first come, first served sign-up process for the City’s previous $15 million rent relief program back in May — which ran out only 90 minutes after the application process began — Turner said the new fund will be allocated to Houstonians who demonstrate the most need. The details for how Houston residents will apply for these funds, as well as the exact selection criteria, are still being worked out in advance of a planned City Council vote to authorize the new program this Wednesday, Turner explained.
Prior to Wednesday’s vote, Turner said he plans to work the phones to solicit more large donations to the fund, with the hope that the final amount will end up being in the $20-25 million range. Even if the local fund reaches that level, Turner said there’s no way it will be enough to meet the needs of all Houstonians fearful of losing their homes, and begged the state and federal governments to do their part to provide additional funding.
“The need is great, and I am calling on the State of Texas and the federal government to step up and help us,” Turner said. “Cities cannot do this alone.”