Thursday's Coronavirus News: Port Closes 2 Terminals, Abbott Closes DPS Offices [UPDATED]

Executive Director at Harris County Public Health Dr. Umair Shah
Executive Director at Harris County Public Health Dr. Umair Shah Screenshot
Update 2:50 p.m.  Harris County Public Health is reporting the first COVID-19 related death of a resident in Harris County (outside the City of Houston).

The man, between the ages of 80-90 years old, was a resident at a nursing home in the northwest quadrant of Harris County. He was, unfortunately, at high risk for serious COVID-19 complications due to his age and underlying health conditions. HCPH is actively investigating to identify any close contact. The deceased patient was one of the confirmed COVID-19 cases reported yesterday (3/18/20). The deceased was hospitalized when he expired and prior to that, he was a resident of a nursing home facility. 

Update 12:23 p.m.
Effective at midnight Friday, Gov. Abbott has ordered all schools closed in Texas. This was accompanied by Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt's declaration of a Public Health Disaster for the state. Abbott's order is effective through April 3.

Because of the executive order, Abbott said "The state now has quarantine authority," adding that doesn't mean that tactic will be employed. Abbott said the state has accelerated the unemployment application process to get money to people sooner who have been thrown out of work by the virus.

The other points of Abbott's executive order closing bars and clubs and banning dine-in service at restaurants echo what Houston, Harris County and Fort Bend County are already doing. His order asks as well that no one visit nursing home or senior living facilities unless it is crucially important.

It's Thursday morning and the reported number of coronavirus deaths in the state stands at three people: two in north Texas and one in South Texas. It was also reported at a morning press conference that a truck driver at the Port of Houston had tested positive for COVID-19 and as a result, the port has closed at the Barbours Cut and Bayport terminals while investigators seek to determine how many people may have come in contact with the man.

The ILA worker had worked at both container terminals, said Ric Campo, chairman of the Port Commission of the Port of Houston Authority. The other terminals are open and cargo is continuing to flow, although ships at those two terminals are temporarily frozen in place.

In response to questions, Executive Director at Harris County Public Health Dr. Umair Shah said while his office is issuing no official recommendations, both patients and providers — especially dentists and surgeons doing respiratory procedures — should weigh whether they should do elective procedures at this time or reschedule them for later.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county has not been able to open its four drive-through testing sites because it still doesn't have the necessary testing materials from the federal government. She acknowledge that some area hospitals are doing their own testing.

She repeated her plea that people stay home. "We don't want people out on the streets."

In response to a question Shah said there is absolutely no danger to anyone living near any of the COVID-19 test sites.

Also on Wednesday, Gov. Abbott temporarily suspended the need for driver's license renewals, delaying the expiration dates. Today he closed the Texas Department of Public Safety Driver License Offices across the state. Exceptions will be made, by appointment only for those seeking commercial driver's licenses. Email for that.

Abbott also issued a waiver today allowing restaurants to deliver alcoholic beverages with food purchases to patrons, including beer, wine, and mixed drinks. He also told the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to allow manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers of alcoholic beverages to repurchase or sell back unopened product.

The food service and hospitality industry has been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus as Houston, Harris County and a number of other jurisdictions have ordered bars and clubs closed and prohibited restaurants from any dine-in service.

Meanwhile, the Galleria, Katy Mills and Houston Premium Outlets malls announced they are closing through March 29.  Memorial City Mall is closing through March 31. 
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing