Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo both addressed the public on Monday in separate events, during which each leader reiterated their now shared view that a new area stay-home order would be the best bet for reversing the trajectory of COVID-19’s spread throughout the region.
In an afternoon press conference, Turner once again advocated for a temporary, two-week shutdown in Houston to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the city, or at the very least for a return to Phase 1 of Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide reopening orders from the beginning of May when restaurants were only allowed to be open at 25 percent capacity and the vast majority of businesses in Texas were still shuttered. While Turner called Abbott's recent mask requirement for most of the state "a step in the right direction," he argued that more strict measures were still needed, despite not having the authority to issue his own stay-home order due to Abbott's reopening rules.
“I just think we need to reset, and then look at the data and then determine where we’ll go from there,” Turner said, explaining that sharply reducing the rate of COVID-19 infections in the region would be the only way to ensure the safe reopening of schools in the weeks ahead.
Turner also announced that a Harris County judge on Monday afternoon had denied the request of the Republican Party of Texas to grant a temporary injunction to allow them to go forward with their in-person party convention later this week. The state GOP convention was cancelled by Turner last Wednesday, and the party responded with a lawsuit against Turner and the City of Houston.
State District Court Judge Darryl Moore's decision was the second blow of the day against the state GOP’s last-ditch attempt to sue for the right to go forward with their planned in-person convention at George R. Brown Convention Center, after the Supreme Court of Texas ruled against state Republicans earlier on Monday. “The State Republican Executive Committee will meet this evening to vote on moving the State Convention online,” said Republican Party of Texas Chairman James Dickey in a statement released Monday afternoon.
State GOP General Counsel Wade Emmert said that discussions about moving the convention online were necessary because the GRB Convention Center “is no longer available due to the rulings in the Harris County District Court and the Texas Supreme Court today,” a seeming admission of defeat for state Republicans that were hell-bent on holding their annual gathering in-person with over 6,000 attendees.
The Houston Health Department reported 1,544 new COVID-19 cases within the city on Monday in addition to eight new deaths from the coronavirus. Houston’s cumulative COVID-19 case total has reached 30,965, while the city’s death count has now increased to 277, Turner said. He also thanked Gov. Abbott for asking the federal government to extend their funding for Houston’s largest free COVID-19 test sites at Delmar Stadium and Butler Stadium. Abbott announced this weekend that federal funding for these sites had been secured through the end of July.
Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department said that a U.S. military medical task force had arrived in Houston today that was in the process of assessing the conditions on the ground in area hospitals. Persse said the task force would likely take over an empty wing at United Memorial Medical Center’s hospital and use the space to take on overflow patients from other local hospitals. He also said that a third “medical resort” — a medical facility that lightens the load on hospitals by caring for patients who have made significant progress recovering from COVID-19 but who aren’t quite ready to return home — would likely be opened soon in the Willowbrook area.
In remarks to the public earlier on Monday morning, Harris County Jude Linda Hidalgo declared that “what we feared would happen is come to pass,” in reference to the continued spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the weeks following her announcement that county officials had upgraded the area’s COVID-19 threat level to its highest level back on June 26.
“The strategy of just filling our hospital beds with sick patients is just wrong,” Hidalgo said. The county was reporting a total of 189 deaths in Harris County to date in areas outside the city limits as well as a total of 16,404 positive confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county's unincorporated areas.
Hidalgo said that COVID-19 patients now make up 48 percent of intensive care unit patients in Harris County, up from only 15 percent at the end of May. She also highlighted the disproportionate impact the coronavirus is having on Hispanic and African American county residents.
“Hospitalizations continue to rise. If it wasn’t clear before, it’s obvious now that having so much still open, from restaurants to all size indoor events to water parks is not going to turn this thing around, which is why I continue to call for an enforceable stay-home order,” Hidalgo said.
According to Harris County Public Health data for hospitals outside of Houston, more than 50 percent of the weekly total of hospitalized COVID-19 patients have been Hispanic since mid-May, Hidalgo said. She explained that during some weeks over this span of time, the share of Hispanic patients among all hospitalized COVID-19 patients hit 65 percent, even though only 44 percent of Harris County residents are Hispanic. Cumulatively, 60 percent of those hospitalized for COVID-19 in Harris County since March have been Hispanic, Hidalgo said.
Hidalgo also said that African American county residents account for over 25 percent of the county’s total COVID-19 hospitalizations since March despite the fact that only around 18 percent of county residents are African American.
“If this isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is,” Hidalgo said. “One of the saddest repercussions about this strategy to fill up all hospital beds before taking any meaningful action is how we’re leaving a tremendous part of our community behind.”
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Later in the press conference, Hidalgo was joined by County Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis to discuss the Harris County Small Business Fund, a new $30 million county fund to local businesses affected by COVID-19. Hidalgo said that grants of up to $25,000 will be awarded to area businesses in need.
Awardees will be selected at random out of qualifying applicants, although the county’s smallest businesses and businesses that have yet to receive financial assistance from other COVID-19 relief funds will be prioritized, Hidalgo explained. The county’s new relief fund will accept applications for the next ten days through ReadyHarris.org or via telephone at 713-845-2476.
While she said the new fund is an important step, Hidalgo stressed that the local economy won’t be able to recover in a sustainable fashion until the troubling trends of COVID-19’s spread can be reversed. In the meantime, Hidalgo will continue to advocate for Abbott and the Texas state government to either issue a stay-home order or to give local officials like herself and Mayor Turner the authority to enforce their own.
“For the past few weeks, it’s [been] more hospitalizations, more deaths, more pain in our community, and we’re not any closer to putting our economy back on track. Quite the contrary,” she said.