In a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner discussed the worsening COVID-19 pandemic ahead of the Fourth of July holiday while touting a new partnership with Harris County and private donors to address local homelessness amid the coronavirus crisis.
Of immediate concern for the holiday weekend was an announcement from Steve Wright, Director of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, that Eleanor Tinsley Park and Sam Houston Park will both be closed on Saturday, July 4 due to the fireworks show being held nearby, without the usual massive crowd due to the state of the pandemic.
Other than those two closures on Saturday, Wright said that all City of Houston parks will stay open this weekend, but only for “active recreational activity,” and that city officials will be patrolling local parks to make sure no non-active gatherings like picnics or cookouts will be taking place.
Turner said he hoped that this holiday weekend wouldn’t be marked by the same massive crowds that came out to public places over Memorial Day weekend at the end of May, and urged Houstonians to avoid “rushing down to the beaches and all of that.”
Near the end of Turner’s press conference, Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough announced that Galveston beaches and seawall parking would be closed for the Fourth of July weekend due to COVID-19. The closures will last from 5 a.m. Friday, July 3 through 12:01 a.m. Monday, July 6.
Turner announced that the Houston Health Department reported 832 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, bringing Houston’s cumulative total to 21,123. Four new local COVID-19 deaths were also reported, including three individuals over the age of 50 with underlying health conditions and one woman in her twenties with no known underlying conditions. Houston’s COVID-19 death count now sits at 228.
“The threat COVID-19 poses to our community right now is higher than it has been. There is a severe and uncontrolled spread between our families, friends and communities, and it’s gonna take all of us working together to arrest the speed of this virus,” Turner said. He described the strain the steady influx of new cases has had on contact tracing efforts and local hospital capacity, and how curbing the spread of coronavirus through the widespread use of face masks and social distancing is more important now than ever.
The Texas Medical Center reported Wednesday that ICU beds across their hospitals had reached 102 percent capacity, the first time that metric had surpassed 100 percent, signalling that they have already had to implement surge capacity procedures to increase the number of ICU beds available. The TMC reports that their normal ICU bed count is 1,330, but that 1,350 ICU patients are currently admitted. The first step of surge procedures would make an additional 373 ICU beds available, and later steps could convert an additional 504 beds, according to data provided by the TMC.
Wednesday’s sobering update from the TMC came on the heels of a Tuesday night appearance by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Fox News, during which he insulted nationally respected CDC virus expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, made light of the seriousness of Texas’s shocking COVID-19 metrics in recent weeks and declared that “we are not out of ICU beds in Texas” in an interview with Laura Ingraham.
Patrick was technically correct that all Texas hospital ICUs aren’t as of yet 100 percent full across the state, but his insouciant tone didn’t reflect the concern expressed by state hospital leaders that Texas hospitals could be overrun in the coming weeks if COVID-19 cases continue to spike as they have over the past month.
Turner was also asked about his communication with the Republican Party of Texas about their upcoming state convention, which as of Wednesday was still set to be held in-person in Houston at George R. Brown Convention Center July 16-18 without any face mask requirement in place for attendees. Clearly exasperated, Turner said that while he didn’t think the in-person event should happen due to the risk of spreading the coronavirus, he didn’t see it as his responsibility to insert himself into the issue to avoid the appearance that he as a Democrat would be interfering based on partisan politics and not public health.
“I don’t want to politicize this issue. If it were, for example, any other conference (or) convention, it would not be proceeding. I certainly would take steps to say no,” Turner said
“I choose not to be used in this situation,” Turner said later, before sarcastically chastising the local media for continuing to ask him about the issue.
“With all due respect to the media, with all due respect,” Turner said, “do y’all have the number to the governor? Y’all have an email address? Because if you don’t, I can get you that. C’mon now. It’s not my convention.”
Earlier in the press conference, Turner discussed the details of the new partnership to address homelessness in the area, called the Community-wide COVID-19 Housing Program. The goal of the program is to assist 5,000 homeless or soon-to-be homeless individuals within two years, Turner said.
He explained that the City and Harris County were inspired to act due to the lack of protection for homeless individuals from COVID-19 because of their increased likelihood of suffering from underlying health conditions and how difficult it is for them to practice measures like social distancing and proper hygiene due to their lack of shelter. Turner also cited the fact that financial pressures stemming from the pandemic have put more people at risk for homelessness in recent months.
“Homelessness knows no geographic boundaries,” Turner said. “I am grateful for the County’s partnership, for this is truly a watershed opportunity that will benefit all who call Houston and Harris County home.”
The new program, which will be administered by the Coalition for the Homeless, the local nonprofit who partners with the City to serve the homeless, will consist of three types of assistance: long-term housing and support services for an estimated 1,000 individuals, rapid rehousing in the form of rental assistance for up to one year and case management programs for approximately 1,700 individuals, and diversion programs to help prevent an estimated 2,000 at-risk individuals from becoming homeless in the first place through short-term financial assistance for things like rent and utilities and other case-by-case interventions.
“Make no mistake, this is an emergency response to an infectious disease, but one that would have a permanent impact by significantly decreasing our homeless population,” Turner said.
The total estimated cost of the new programs will be $65 million, Turner said. The Harris County Commissioners Court approved $18 million toward the new anti-homelessness initiative on Tuesday. The City of Houston has already committed $29 million to the program. Turner said Wednesday that the City hopes to ultimately pitch in over $40 million cumulatively based on other federally-allocated funding sources, and that the rest of the $65 million total would come from private philanthropic contributions.
Mike Nichols, President of the Coalition for the Homeless, explained that the price tag of these programs increased to $65 million from the previously discussed $56 million due to the addition of new funding from the federal Emergency Solutions Grants program.
Turner and Nichols were joined in-person by County Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo also joined via video, still in self-isolation after one of her staffers tested positive for COVID-19, despite the judge herself testing negative on Tuesday. Each of the three Harris County Democrats applauded the new initiative.
“Together, we are making the single largest investment in addressing chronic homelessness in our region’s history,” said Hidalgo. “Meaningful change happens when we work together to think outside the box, shift paradigms and invest in innovative solutions.”