Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner once again asked Gov. Abbott to give back the ability for local officials to make sweeping orders to help corral the spread of the coronavirus after revealing the first inductees to the city’s wall of shame for COVID-19 rulebreakers in a Monday afternoon press conference.
Turner cited how the ability for city mayors and county judges to make broad stay at home orders in the early months of the COVID-19 crisis corresponded with when Texas saw relatively low case and hospitalization numbers, as opposed to the current state of affairs where statewide reopening mandates have stripped local power as case counts skyrocket throughout major cities in the state.
“Give us back our tools. I think people can see that what we had and how we utilized them worked,” Turner said.
“I do applaud him for the steps he did take,” Turner said later of Abbott’s decision to re-close bars and reduce restaurant capacity at the end of last week, “but if I had my druthers, I’d ask for the authority that we had in March and April.”
The Houston Health Department reported 1,317 new positive COVID-19 cases on Monday, which represents new cases for a two-day period since no metrics are typically reported on Sundays. That brings the Houston cumulative case count to 20,011. Five additional COVID-19 related deaths were reported Monday as well, including the death of a Hispanic female in her 30s with underlying health conditions, bringing the city death count to 224.
Earlier, Turner revealed the first three local businesses, all bars and nightclubs, that have been added to the City of Houston’s wall of shame for COVID-19 non-compliance: Spire Nightclub at 1720 Main, Pour Behavior at 2211 Travis and Prospect Park Sports Bar & Kitchen at 3100 Fountain View. Spire Nightclub in particular was shown absolutely packed with patrons with nary a mask in sight in a video that went viral on social media this weekend, despite Gov. Abbott’s orders that bars and nightclubs close as of noon last Friday and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s order requiring all businesses to enforce mask use by customers earlier this month.
Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said that his office received over 300 complaints from residents about bars, clubs and restaurants that weren’t complying with occupancy and mask-use guidelines over the weekend. The three wall of shame inductees all refused to close upon being visited by local officials, Peña and Turner said, so they were reported to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in addition to being publicly shamed by the mayor on Monday.The TABC suspended Prospect Park's liquor license for 30 days.
“These are businesses that quite frankly are just not serving their patrons well, and not serving the city well,” Turner scolded.
The mayor was also asked about changes in hospital capacity statistics shared by Texas Medical Center member hospitals. According to reporting by the Houston Chronicle, the TMC was hours late in posting their daily charts related to COVID-19 metrics on Saturday, and originally didn’t include multiple slides that contained the usual updates about current hospital capacity and projections for future bed availability. Most of the missing information was published Sunday night, albeit in a new format that presented the same hospital capacity trend data in a less alarming fashion. TMC officials told the Chronicle that the changes were meant to paint a clearer picture for the public, but the delay and new presentation style raised concern over the weekend.
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Turner said he wasn’t aware of what caused the changes to the way the TMC was reporting their data, but asked that they attempt to remain as consistent as possible in order to prevent speculation that they may have been pressured to paint a rosier picture than reality regarding their hospital bed counts.
“In a time like this when the numbers are going up and the eyes are certainly on the city of Houston and where we are, I do think it’s important for us to continue to be consistent,” said Turner. “When people get used to seeing things a certain way and you start changing it, it just raises questions.”
Last Wednesday, a group of 11 leaders from TMC hospitals wrote an open letter expressing concern that capacity at their facilities might soon be overwhelmed due to rapidly rising COVID-19 hospitalizations.
A day later, after Gov. Abbott publicly issued new restrictions on elective surgeries to free up hospital space, four of those same leaders held a virtual press conference attempting to reassure the public that their hospitals were already undergoing procedures to temporarily expand capacity that would allow them to handle an influx of COVID-19 patients, at least in the near future.