Coronavirus

Coronavirus In Greater Houston: Schools Closed Through End Of The Year, As Gov. Abbott Announces Plans To Restart Economy

As Houston enters its sixth week dealing with the coronavirus, Houston Public Media provides more live updates.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced a strike force in charge of taking steps to re-open the Texas economy at a press conference at the Capitol on Friday.

THE LATEST


  • There are more than 4,300 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Harris County, at least 2,456of which are in Houston.
  • At least 29 people have died from the coronavirus in Houston, and 63 in all of Harris County.
  • There are now more than 6,000 coronavirus cases in the region, in the City of Houston, greater Harris County, Fort Bend County, Montgomery County, Brazoria County, Liberty County, Chambers County, Galveston County, Austin County and Waller County.
  • The city has opened drive-through testing sites to anyone, regardless of symptoms. You can call 832-393-4220 for a unique identification number, and directions to a testing site.

This story is part of Houston Public Media's ongoing coronavirus coverage. To see our previous live coverage, click here.

Maps: Tracking COVID-19's Spread In Texas

Updated 5:42 p.m. CT Friday

Harris County testing sites will now start accepting people who are not showing symptoms of COVID-19, following both Houston and Galveston County earlier this week. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county did not expand testing until Friday, out of concern for supplies.

Updated 5:15 p.m. CT Friday

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he would appoint the city’s “recovery czar” on Monday to help shape a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That person, along with a selection from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, would help chart a path toward opening up the local economy again, Turner said.

The two picks from the city and county would lead a task force similar to ones already put forward earlier Friday by Gov. Greg Abbott. Abbott made his announcement during a press conference announcing the easing of restrictions to the state economy, something Turner said he would consider doing, but only if there were an increase in testing.

Turner said he would use Abbott’s order as a guide, but that some restrictions would remain in place through at least the end of May, until he was comfortable with the level of testing being performed.

"That will determine how quickly and in what stages you can open things up,” Turner said. “And that's the piece where I think will require a lot more information…I look forward to hearing more from the state on their planning."

Turner added that resources were key, and along with testing, a consistent supply chain for protective equipment will determine how rapidly businesses open.

Friday marked 30 days since restaurants and bars were ordered to close, and the mayor said opening businesses without proper resources in place could lead to another shutdown.

But while Turner was in no rush to reopen businesses across the city, he did agree with some of Abbott’s order. The mayor said he agreed with the governor’s stance to open park, and that the city parks would remain open through the weekend.

The mayor did add that the city would close parking lots at some city parks, to help control overcrowding.

He also praised the governor for keeping school buildings closed through the end of the academic year.

A federal judge in Houston ordered the release of a person from an immigration detention facility, after lawyers argued the detainee was vulnerable to serious illness and death. It’s the first decision in Texas granting release specifically because of COVID-19. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four plaintiffs, two of whom were released on bond after the suit was filed. A fourth person’s release was denied on Friday.

As of Friday, 71 inmates and 100 employees in the Harris County jail have tested positive for the coronavirus, along with an additional 15 Harris County Sheriff’s Office employees who do not work in the jail, according to Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.

In total, 137 previously quarantined employees, including 11 who previously tested positive for the virus, – are now healthy and have returned to duty.

Five of our teammates are currently in the hospital, including Sgt. Raymond Scholwinski. Help us to continue praying for their prompt recovery as they battle the virus.

Seventy-one inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.

Updated 1:47 p.m. CT Friday

In addition to an order aimed at an eventual restart of the state’s economy after the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott, citing recent talks with the White House, said Texas would be receiving a “dramatic increase” in testing — “not just testing those who may show symptoms, but also being able to test entire communities so that we have better information.”

Pressed on specific numbers and a timeline, Abbott said Texans can expect a “massive amount of testing capability coming to Texas by late April or early May.”

Speaking on the timeline for businesses to re-open, Abbott said he would listen to medical experts and data. When asked about employers who may “push the envelope” and employees who may be concerned about returning to work, Abbott said those employees “should not be coerced into returning to work.”

“We need to make sure that our employees and that employers … are employing the very best strategies” to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, Abbott said.

Additional reporting by Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Updated 1:38 p.m. CT Friday

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday announced plans to start opening up the Texas economy, creating a statewide “strike force” to come up with guidelines to do so.

In an executive order signed Friday morning, Abbott closed schools for the remainder of the year for in-classroom work, while still allowing for remote or video instruction. His order also opened retail with “to-go” service, similar to service restaurants have been performing since the start of statewide stay-at-home orders, effective next Friday. And parks will reopen Monday, though people must wear masks and keep a six-foot distance, in groups no larger than five, Abbott said.

The move is in part a result of the success of social distancing guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Texas, Abbott said at a news conference.

“We’re now beginning to see glimmers that the worst of COVID-19 may soon be behind us,” Abbott said. “We have demonstrated that we can corral the coronavirus.”

The state will announce additional plans on April 27 to possibly “reopen” Texas, Abbott said. The governor described it as a "phased-in strategy" that includes comprehensive testing, and standards to protect vulnerable residents “while allowing others to increase their interactions."\

The governor’s “statewide strike force” will be chaired by former UT regent James Huffines, and will also be led by lobbyist and former Rick Perry chief of staff Mike Toomey. The task force will include statewide officials, medical experts and business leaders, he said.

Based on how well contained COVID-19 is in Texas, the state will consider allowing more businesses to open with employer safety guidelines. That could include restaurants and movie theaters, he said.

Abbott also added that he was issuing an executive order to loosen restrictions on non-essential surgeries. The governor previously defined abortion as an elective surgery amid the coronavirus pandemic, essentially banning the practice in Texas. The order was the subject of a court challenge soon after.

Friday’s order did not include the loosening of restrictions on abortion, he said.

Abbott also announced he was letting retail outlets re-open April 24 to offer “retail-to-go” — meaning the outlets can make deliveries to customers’ cars outside their location or to customers’ homes. That executive order is here.

In expanding retail service, Abbott said the success of food and grocery delivery led to the decision that delivery and to-go service can be expanded.

Abbott also addressed an increase in unemployment claims throughout Texas, dismissing the idea of tax increases to pay for benefits.

“There won’t be any tax hikes” Abbott said.

The Texas Workforce Commission says the state will run out of money for unemployment by May or June.

Updated 4:41 p.m. CT Thursday

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Thursday said he was not ready to lift restrictions on businesses and travel in the city of Houston, amid talk about the state and federal government pushing for a “reopening” of the economy during the global coronavirus pandemic.

Turner’s remarks came at a press conference Thursday in which he announced three more people had died from COVID-19 inside Houston, raising the count to 29 within city limits.

"This virus is real,” Turner said. “And the decisions we have been making, those decisions have been based on saving peoples’ lives. And just as soon as we can reopen our city, we will do so, but we will do so with the health and safety of our people in mind."

Turner on Thursday also accepted a monetary donation from Hyundai to allow for the acquisition of 10,000 more test kits, continuing to stress that testing availability cannot be scarce if life is going to start getting back to normal.

"While you’re still going through the storm, you have to be very careful when you start focusing on the other end,” Turner said. “So lets not act like we're out of the storm, and everything is fine…Because we're not."

Mayor Turner said he hoped more donations and assistance would come from the private sector.

A medical professional takes a sample from a drive-thru patient for testing at a newly opened free COVID-19 testing site operated by United Memorial Medical Center Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Houston. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

Updated 1:44 p.m. CT Thursday

Walgreens is opening two new drive-through COVID-19 testing sites, near Pasadena and on the west side near West Oaks mall, according to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
Hidalgo said the sites can each administer 200 tests a day.
"These are 15 minute tests, these are rapid tests,” Hidalgo said. “Folks will not receive the results for 24 hours, but that’s fast. That’s the kind of speed we need.”
The sites are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. People who want to be tested need to go online to be screened and registered, and the sites will only test people showing symptoms. Walgreens is testing in only a handful of states, and the only two locations in Texas are in Houston.
Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city is looking into these kind of public-private partnerships as well.
Gov. Greg Abbott said he will release plans Friday for jump-starting the Texas economy. But according to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the greater Houston area is not ready to reopen for business.
Hidalgo said a plan can be implemented when the county reaches a peak number of coronavirus cases. But even then, she added, testing needs to be made readily available.
"If we make it past the peak, and we reopen, and we don't have enough testing, or fast enough testing, cases are bound to reappear,” Hidalgo said Wednesday. “Once they do, we will have to shut everything back down again and we will be right where we were 3 weeks ago."
Hidalgo stressed the importance of not being complacent with social distancing, saying that the longer it takes for cases to peak, the longer it will take to reopen the economy.
The Harris County medical examiner's office reports the number of at-home deaths last week more than doubled from the same time last year, some of which could be linked to COVID-19. But it was unclear how many were being tested for the disease posthumously. At a weekly city council meeting, District C Council member Abbie Kamin pointed to New York City, where many suspected cases weren't counted as COVID-19 deaths, as a cause for concern.
"They're also starting to count, in a separate count, those that likely had COVID but were not able to get tested because they passed away and things like that,” Kamin said. “Are we talking about, as a city, or at the county level, looking at those counts as well?"
Mayor Sylvester Turner said New York's medical system was overwhelmed — but Houston isn't at capacity, so there's time to accurately evaluate deaths. But it was not immediately clear how many people who died at home were being tested.
Some large Texas school districts have decided not to reopen their campuses this school year, including Fort Bend ISD, KIPP Texas and IDEA charter schools. Other districts like Houston and Austin have said they’re closed until further notice. Bob Sanborn with the advocacy group Children at Risk says he expects more to follow.
“I think anyone who thinks that we’re going to have school resumed at some point during this academic year is wrong,” Sanborn said.
Sanborn said it also may be difficult for schools to restart in-person classes in the fall if there are still remnants of the coronavirus.

Updated 8:44 a.m. CT Thursday

In just one month, 1.2-million Texans have applied for unemployment benefits, a number that's normally indicative of a year and a half of claims, according to the Texas Workforce Commission's Cisco Gamez. Of those 1.2 million, about half have begun requesting benefits, with the state paying out more than $400 million so far since the week ending arch 14, Gamez said Via Facebook Live Wednesday. On Monday alone the state paid out $183 million in benefits — the largest paid out in a single day for the agency, Gamez said.

A group of Black Democratic lawmakers in Texas called on state and local officials to mandate the collection of demographic data for people who have tested positive for COVID-19. Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis told the Texas Standard that collecting the data helps epidemiologists better determine how to care for people in demographic groups that are more at risk. Ellis argued that many black Texans disproportionately work in industries that come into contact with people, including the post office and the service industry, and which are deemed “essential services” during the pandemic. Black and Latino Texans are also more likely to lack health insurance.

Washington election workers collect ballots from a drop box.

A Texas judge said Wednesday he will clarify that voters fearful of contracting COVID-19 will be allowed to use mail-in ballots during elections in July and November. KUT in Austin reports that if the Travis County district court judge's order is upheld, it would make all of the state's approximately 16 million registered voters eligible to apply for an absentee ballot. Texas, the country's second largest state by population, has one of the strictest vote-by-mail programs in the country. Only people over 65, people who are in jail and not convicted, people who will be out of the county, and people who are sick or disabled can get a mail-in ballot.

A federal judge on Wednesday declined to stop Gov. Greg Abbott's order denying the release of certain jail inmates in Texas amid the coronavirus. The court did not issue a definitive ruling on the constitutionality of the order, but denied a motion to temporarily halt the executive order, with Judge Lee H. Rosenthal saying in part that there wasn’t enough information to go forward with a temporary restraining order.
“This case is far from easy. There are risks no matter what this court decides,” Rosenthal wrote in her order denying the request from a group of plaintiffs challenging Harris County’s felony cash bail practices. “Institutions charged with safeguarding the public and upholding the Constitution have an extraordinary and difficult task, made more difficult and more consequential during this pandemic. Mindful of the sparse record and of this court's own limited authority, the court has done its best to balance the constitutional and public safety interests at stake.”
But the order is still being litigated in the state Supreme Court. And late Tuesday, Fort Bend County DA Brian Middleton joined three other prosecutors from the San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Dallas areas in support of a lawsuit looking to strike down Abbott's order.
In a court filing, the DAs stressed a need to depopulate the prisons, and release those who don't pose a public safety risk. They said the order puts peoples lives in danger, including jail workers, and could lead to giving people who are presumed innocent what amounts to a death sentence.
That lawsuit was filed earlier this week by a group of defense attorneys and all 16 Harris County misdemeanor judges.

Updated 5:21 p.m. CT Tuesday

Five more people confirmed to have the coronavirus have died in Houston, the largest one-day increase the city has seen since reporting its first death almost three weeks ago.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that number, along with 40 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, at his daily press conference Tuesday. There are now at least 2,279 cases in Houston alone.

Turner said April was a "critical month" for the city, and hoped social distancing practices would help stop the ongoing spread of the virus, now officially in its fifth week in the Houston area.

Turner also reiterated the city was in no rush to restart day-to-day life, as some are calling for the state and country to "reopen" the economy.

"We have yet to reach our peak here in Houston, so it is very important for everyone to stay focused and stay home," Turner said. "Since we have not reached our peak yet, we can not yet have that discussion about opening up. We need to stay to course and focus on the task at hand. The focus right now is saving people's lives."

The news came as the city expanded testing Tuesday to anyone who wanted it, regardless of symptoms. That expansion has led to an increase in demand: The city's call system was overloaded Tuesday, with the Houston Health Department issuing 300 unique testing IDs in just two hours, Turner said. And by 1 p.m. Tuesday, the health department had given out 800 testing IDs.

Turner added that Houston was looking to double the number of operators Wednesday to 50, and that there are 1,000 tests available per day.

But despite the increase in testing, and the relatively small number of positive cases announced Tuesday, Houston Health Authority David Persse said much more needed to be done.

"By virtue of the fact that the number was small, I take no comfort in that," Persse said.

Persse added that four of the five deaths announced Tuesday had happened in the last five days, and said there was an inconsistency in the cases being reported to the city.

Organizations doing the testing legally have 10 days to report, but Persse is asking those groups to report deaths even sooner, so local governments can make more-informed decisions.

"To our physicians and health care providers, please understand how important this information is to our elected leaders," Persse said. "Please do everything you can to get this information to us."

An ICE detainee has tested positive for COVID-19 at an immigration detention center in Livingston, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The 40-year-old Mexican man who tested positive has been quarantined since he was taken into custody and is receiving care, according to an ICE official. The man had recently been transferred in from the Harris County Sheriff's Office. At least forty-six Harris County jail inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.
Fort Bend ISD announced Tuesday it would postpone commencement for students graduating in 2020, as it extends online courses through the remainder of the school year. In an email, , Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Dr. Charles Dupre said he took “several factors” into consideration when making the decision, including public safety.
“(W)e know that, even if Governor Abbott allows schools to reopen as of May 4, many families and staff members will be reluctant to return to school and work to avoid potential exposure to the virus,” Dupre said. “Additionally, because there are only three weeks remaining of instruction after May 4, we believe it will be even more disruptive to our students, staff and teachers to ask them to pivot back into our buildings and the traditional classroom environment.”
People traversing George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Taken on Feb. 20, 2020.

Updated 3:19 p.m. CT Tuesday

The federal government will pump more than $811 million into Texas airports in response to the coronavirus pandemic, including more than $200 million for William P. Hobby and George Bush Intercontinental airports.

The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration is awarding $811,535,430 to 210 airports in Texas, part of grant funding in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, to provide relief to airlines and airline workers. Bush Intercontinental is set to receive roughly $149.2 million, while Hobby will get about $50.9 million, according to the DOT. Overall, the government is awarding $10 billion in relief to airports across the country.

The funding is a response to a dramatic decrease in flight traffic in recent weeks that have led to layoffs and furloughs across the country. The federal funds are available for payroll, debt payments, and other airport expenditures.

Updated 10:58 a.m. CT Tuesday

Harris County has officially joined the fight to make mail-in voting universal in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, as pressure continues to mount on Texas leaders to expand access to the ballot box. Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan has filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit by Texas Democrats trying to force the state to make mail-in ballots available to all, by allowing anyone to file for mail do so by claiming to be “disabled,” because voting in person could threaten their health.

According to the county, state election law broadly defines "disabled," to include voters who have “a likelihood of needing personal assistance” or if voting leads to a likelihood “of injuring the voter's health." Since COVID-19 would open up the possibility for all voters to contract the possibly fatal disease, they should not be forced to vote in person, the brief argues.

The brief also argues that social distancing is impossible in the often small and cramped polling places, and that the county “would have to avoid holding elections in vulnerable locations such as nursing homes.”

"Our job is to ensure that we protect the constitutional rights to ballot access and fundamental fairness in the electoral process for Harris County voters," read a statement from Ryan. "This includes not having their government make endangering one's health a condition to exercising the right to vote.”

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman has signaled her office would not look closely into anyone who makes such a claim.

Updated 10:11 a.m. CT Tuesday

Medication abortions in Texas will continue, at least temporarily, after a federal court ruling in a lawsuit over Texas’ ban on most abortions during the coronavirus pandemic.

From the Texas Tribune:

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will allow medication abortions, which involve a patient ingesting pills, to proceed in Texas during the coronavirus outbreak, the latest development in a weekslong legal dispute over state officials' attempt to ban the procedure in nearly all circumstances as it combats the pandemic.

A previous ruling from the New Orleans-based appeals court lets patients near the legal gestational limit receive abortions as well.

Hundreds of abortions in Texas have been canceled since state officials barred the procedure, except when the woman's health is at risk, as the novel coronavirus spreads. The prohibition is meant to preserve personal protective equipment, like masks and gloves, that is in short supply nationwide and to free up bed space as hospitals prepare for a possible surge in COVID-19 patients

Updated 4:16 p.m. CT Monday

All city-run coronavirus testing sites in Houston will now be open to everyone, regardless of symptoms, as health officials try to get ahead of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, now entering its sixth week in the region.

The city is running two drive-through testing sites, both previously reserved for first responders and people with multiple symptoms of COVID-19.

But easing qualifications to receive a test is crucial, because asymptomatic carriers are just as likely to pass on the virus as symptomatic carriers, Dr. David Persse with the Houston Health Department.

"We've learned unfortunately that this virus is different in that aspect,” Persse said Monday, at the opening of a new testing site. “Sites like these who are taking asymptomatic, or without any symptoms, have given us incites that several weeks ago we did not anticipate.”

The new testing site opened at Cullen Middle School in Southeast Houston, an area that health officials consider a "hot spot" for the virus.

The process of receiving testing remains the same, and people looking to get tests were asked to call 832-393-4220 for a unique identification number, and directions to a testing site.

The Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities is working on accommodating those with disabilities in getting to the sites.

Mayor Sylvester Turner also responded to suggestions from President Donald Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott to potentially lift orders limiting travel and business in Texas and other states, saying the city was listening to the advice of medical professionals, and working to further increase testing.

“I think we're all anxious to get to the point where we can ‘reopen,’ whatever that means,” Turner said. “Whenever we get to that point to reopen, it won't mean that everything just opens up at one time. And as you've heard people say, it's not like you turn on the light, or the switch, and the lights just turn on. Whenever we get to that point, it will be very phased."

The city on Monday announced 118 new COVID-19 cases and 2 more deaths, bringing the death toll in Houston to 18. All those who died had preexisting conditions, Turner said.

Seventy-six Harris County Sheriff's Office employees and 46 jail inmates have now been diagnosed with coronavirus, according to Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. Of those employees, 63 work in the Harris County Jail. Three employees are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. In total, 1,592 people detained in Harris County Jail are in “observational quarantine,” meaning they have no symptoms but may have been exposed to the coronavirus, Gonzalez’s office said.

The Sheriff’s Office said it has issued protective masks to all jail employees and inmates, and are providing regular temperature checks to employees before they report for duty. People who have been arrested are being isolated at intake if they exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, and Gonzalez’s office said they increasing soap and other sanitary products, among other things.

Harris County has finished construction of a medical shelter at NRG . But Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, said he hopes the county doesn't need it. But, he added, it's better to be prepared in case hospitals are overwhelmed with cases.

“It's an investment in insuring our ability to be able to handle a surge off that hospital health care system, which is increasing in volume, but not to the point where it's been saturated, which is a good sign,” Shah said Monday.

The alternate care site has staff for at least 250 patients, but can hold up to 1,700 if there is enough medical personnel, Shah added.

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