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Coronavirus In Greater Houston: Bars, Other Businesses Can Now Reopen At 25% Capacity

As Houston enters its 11th week dealing with the coronavirus, Houston Public Media provides more live updates.

Starting Friday, May 22, restaurants in Texas can open at 50 percent capacity and bars at 25 percent.

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 1:08 p.m. CT Friday

Bars, bowling alleys, zoos, aquariams and other businesses were allowed to reopen on Friday at 25% capacity, as the latest phase of Gov. Greg Abbott’s “Open Texas” plan went into effect. Restaurants can now also open at 50% capacity.

The governor said those businesses should promote social distancing rules, and asked bars and restaurants to restrict service to seated tables, while also discouraging dancing and other activities that require close contact. At bowling alleys, bingo halls and roller skating rinks, the governor added, people should remain 6 feet apart at all times.

But not all businesses were taking advantage of the governor’s updated guidelines. Some bars, like Johnny’s Gold Brick in the Heights, have delayed opening until they feel like they can safely do so. The bar said on Facebook it would still offer to-go options, but that owners and staff “are going to take a little more time” to prepare for a full reopening.

On May 31, more businesses will be able to reopen, and certain sporting events can resume without crowds.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo at a press conference on Thursday, May 21, 2020. Hidalgo extended the county's stay-at-home order, a largely symbolic move now that Gov. Greg Abbott has lifted many restrictions, superseding local rules.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo at a press conference on Thursday. Hidalgo extended the county’s stay-at-home order, a largely symbolic move now that Gov. Greg Abbott has lifted many restrictions, superseding local rules.

Updated 2:06 p.m. CT Thursday

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday announced the extension of the county’s stay-at-home order, even as Gov. Greg Abbott lifted such restrictions in the state and superseded most local directives.

Hidalgo said the extended order, set to be signed Thursday afternoon, is meant to be a reminder that Houston is not out of the woods when it comes to COVID-19. The language of the order would be revised to abide with Abbott’s executive orders, which allow for the partial reopening of restaurants, bars, daycares and other businesses that were closed by the county.

“We don't want people to say, I'm sick of it, I'm going back out there,” Hidalgo said about her decision to extend the order. “We will have an outbreak…We'll have to use the blunt tool of closing things down again, and that's the last thing I want.”

"There's still no treatment, there's still no cure, there's still no vaccine," she said.

The news came during a press conference in which Hidalgo announced the county had surpassed 10,000 confirmed cases, and more than 200 deaths.

The county also unveiled new guidelines for worker protections in construction and retail, which include screenings for symptoms, routine disinfecting, and staggering shifts.

Gov. Greg Abbott has lifted restrictions on air travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor’s new executive order, issued Thursday, undid a 14-day quarantine mandate for air travelers to Texas arriving from California, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and Miami.

Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrmann has tested positive for COVID-19, she announced on Twitter:

Updated 4:57 p.m. CT Wednesday

The city’s latest data shows that as many as 30% of people who have COVID-19 are asymptomatic, Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Wednesdy. That means it’s just as important now to wear a face mask as when the city first recommended it weeks ago, he said.

"The very same things that we needed to do in March and April to flatten the virus, are the same things we need to continue to do and keep everyone safe,” he said.

City health leaders say the data shows the importance of getting tested even if you don’t feel sick. Studies have shown that a person is most likely to spread the virus right after they first get it.

Turner said this can make someone a dangerous carrier if they don’t know they have the virus.

Fort Bend County is launching a new program to test 1,000 people in nursing homes across the county, including both residents and staff.

The county “strike team” will head into the 15 long-term nursing homes, before hopefully moving to assisted living facilities, County Judge KP George said.

​The task force is a combination of staff from the Health and Human Services Department, EMS and Fire Departments in the county. Staff receieved training on how to handle samples last week, and the process has already begun, George said. The governor gave a two week timeline for the tests to be administered.

Updated 2:15 p.m. CT Wednesday

Texas state leaders on Wednesday directed many state agencies and schools to cut their budgets by 5% in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter to heads of those groups, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen instructed each to submit a plan to find cost savings to reduce “general and general revenue related appropriations” for the current budget period. The chosen cuts should not affect the state’s response to COVID-19, they said, and instead recommended deferring some capital expenditures, avoiding travel expenditures, cutting nonessential administrative expenses, and keeping open positions unfilled unless essential to COVID-19 response.

Excluded from the cuts are Child Protective Services, and appropriations to the Texas Division of Emergency Management, the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Texas Workforce Commission, the Texas Military Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice security operations and managed health care.

Funding for debt service requirements and bond authorizations would also be allowed to go forward, as would funding for the Foundation School Program and school safety, the letter said.

Benefits and eligibility levels in Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, the foster care program, the adoption subsidies program, the permanency care assistance program, and state funding for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities will continue, as will funding for behavioral health service programs, appropriations to health-related institutions and community colleges, and employer contributions to the Teacher Retirement System and Employees Retirement System funds, as well as to Social Security, the leaders said.

The University of Houston
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Four high-paid employees of the University of Houston have taken voluntary 10% pay cuts, including the school’s president.

Updated 11:12 a.m. CT Wednesday

The University of Houston president, along with the school’s vice president of athletics and two head coaches, will take voluntary salary cuts in order to ease the financial burden placed on the university by the COVID-19 pandemic. UH President Renu Khator said in an email to staff and faculty that she would take a 10% cut in salary for six months, as would vice president for intercollegiate athletics Chris Pezman, head basketball coach Kelvin Sampson and head football coach Dana Holgorsen.

The temporary cuts are part of a broader cost-cutting plan from the school laid out by its “financial task force,” in the midst of a two-month revenue drop for UH. Other recommendations include centralizing the management of instructional spaces to maximize space while adhering to social distancing and other safety measures, and mandating the return of 25% of unspent school funds from academic and administrative divisions back into the university’s central reserve fund. At the end of the fiscal year, the school is mandating an additional 25% return of unspent administrative funds, Khator said.

Last week, UH partially reopened research labs, after more than 200 requests, and more than 4,000 people have completed training required to return to campus, Khator said. The school plans to bring some administrators back in June and July, and in-person classes are scheduled to return in the fall.

The Houston rental assistance website was flooded with applications just minutes after the process began Wednesday at 10 a.m., causing many people in need to be locked out. By 11:40 a.m., all $15 million worth of relief had been claimed, the city said.
The Houston rental assistance website was flooded with applications just minutes after the process began Wednesday at 10 a.m., causing many people in need to be locked out. By 11:40 a.m., all $15 million worth of relief had been claimed, the city said.

Eviction and debt collection proceedings can resume as early as Tuesday after the Texas Supreme Court lifted its moratorium, the Texas Tribune reports:

Evictions and debt collection proceedings can resume in Texas next week, the Texas Supreme Court has ordered, after the court temporarily put both on hold during the coronavirus pandemic.

Eviction hearings can be held as soon as Tuesday, with orders authorizing evictions allowed starting May 26. That does not apply to certain tenants who are protected through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, including renters in homes covered by federally backed mortgages. Tenants covered under that federal moratorium have protections through Aug. 23. Others may be protected through local orders, like those in place in Austin, Dallas and San Marcos.

Similarly, debt collectors can again garnish accounts starting later this month.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Monday said she was “deeply disappointed” in the court’s decision, saying that it would only lead to increased financial hardship for Texas families.

“Restarting eviction and debt-collection proceedings right now will only deepen the well of desperation many families are experiencing across our county,” read a statement from Hidalgo. “These are hard-working families who, through no fault of their own, have lost irreplaceable income during this pandemic and may not qualify for federal assistance or eviction protections.”

Last week, the city launched its $15 million rent relief program, which allowed renters to apply for relief if their landlord had signed up to receive funds from the program.

But minutes after launching the site was flooded with requests, creating a lag in the performance on the site. In less than two hours, the money was gone, with some tenants unable to apply for the money at all.

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