On Wednesday afternoon, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that he will begin approving certain public special events within the city. The move represents a reversal in the city’s pandemic-long policy of not sponsoring or permitting any public events, which has been the case since Turner shut down the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo back on March 11.
Turner said that going forward, the city will approve a limited number of public events in what he called “controlled venues” which would be required to follow a number of COVID-19 inspired rules, which were approved by the Houston Health Department.
“Each request will be closely reviewed, and strict guidelines must be met prior to approval,” Turner said during an afternoon press conference.
For starters, events in these controlled venues must limit occupancy to 25 percent capacity or less. All attendees must be required to wear face masks while present, everyone has to practice social distancing and every person’s temperature must be scanned at the door. Event attendees must also answer a list of questions about whether they have COVID-19 symptoms before being allowed to enter a venue.
Wednesday’s announcement on events comes after several weeks of encouraging declines in Houston area COVID-19 metrics like test positivity rate — now 6.6 percent within the city, down from a high of around 27 percent in early July — and the number of local hospital patients who have been infected by the coronavirus.
But even though the local positivity rate has fallen significantly, the current rate is still above the 5 percent threshold that both Turner and Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Authority have repeatedly stated is what Houston needs to aim for in order to effectively carry out contact tracing efforts to slow the virus’s spread.
On Wednesday, the Houston Health Department announced 223 new cases of COVID-19 and 8 additional coronavirus deaths within the city. Houston’s total case count now sits at 66,488, and 906 Houstonians have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
Turner specifically referenced multiple public events he has already approved in the weeks ahead. He mentioned an upcoming tailgating event — with social distancing — put on by the Houston Texans that will allow a maximum of 100 cars with no more than four people inside to park outside of NRG Stadium and while watching the home-opener projected on screens in the parking lot.
The Houston Dynamo and Dash have also been allowed to have a maximum of 3,000 fans at home games in BBVA Stadium for the upcoming season, Turner said. The first game with in-person spectators to be approved is a Dash game against the Orlando Pride on September 26.
The final approved event Turner mentioned was an upcoming live Houston Symphony concert later this month that will only allow a maximum of 150 guests inside Jones Hall, although the venue can normally seat 3,000.
Parades, marathons, 5Ks and bike races were listed by the mayor as types of events in outdoor, uncontrolled venues which would still be prohibited, “probably for the rest of the year” due to the difficulty of limiting crowds and enforcing social distancing in those types of outside environments.
Turner said that while he hasn’t made a final decision on whether to hold the city’s annual Thanksgiving parade, “it is looking doubtful” that it will happen, and that it would take a major change “like a vaccine” to make holding such a massive outdoor event feasible in November. When asked about Halloween trick or treating, Turner said he believes that’s something the city can’t control, and encouraged local parents and neighbors to think twice before letting their kids do so.
“This is an important day as we return, or try to return, towards normalcy with this virus,” Persse said Wednesday. “We need to recognize that there is no elimination of the risk. This is a question of managing the risk, and so the guidelines that are being put forward are an effort to do just that.” Persse said that the city’s goal is still to drive the local positivity rate down below five percent.
To make that possible, Turner reiterated that audience members at any future public events must stay vigilant by continuing to wear face masks and practice social distancing, and that no one should think that the city allowing a limited number of events means that COVID-19 is no longer a threat.
“Even though we have a desire to re-socialize, so does the virus,” Turner said.