Houston Region Passes Threshold For Tougher COVID-19 Restrictions

Under Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders, if COVID-19 patients made up 15% or more of all hospitalizations, it would automatically trigger restrictions that include the closure of all bars and a reduction of restaurant capacity to 50%.

Harris County
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo addresses reporters outside of her office on Jan. 5, 2020. Hidalgo said the region would likely begin to close bars and limit restaurant service after hospitalizations remained above Gov. Greg Abbott’s thresholds for tightened restrictions.

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Updated 5:13 p.m. CT

The Houston area had surpassed a hospitalization threshold set by Gov. Greg Abbott that would tighten COVID-19 restrictions across the area, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Tuesday.

The region has seen COVID-19 patients make up 15% or more of the surrounding hospital capacity for seven days. Under Abbott’s orders, that automatically triggers restrictions that include the closure of all bars and a reduction of restaurant capacity to 50%. The restrictions would only lift if the region dropped below that 15% threshold for seven straight days.

“This is not an academic exercise, it is not a threshold that we should in any way celebrate reaching,” Hidalgo said. “What we need to recognize is that without community action right now that's going to flatten the curve that's going to change the trajectory, we are going to find ourselves in a very difficult situation.”

The rollbacks in part mirror regulations Harris County had already put in place back in March, when Hidalgo ordered all bars and nightclubs to close and restricted restaurants to takeout only. Abbott followed with his own stay-at-home order on March 31.

But just a few weeks later, Abbott lifted that order, announcing he would begin “reopening” Texas in phases. That plan superseded local orders like Hidalgo’s, despite calls to allow counties and cities to manage their own policies. Hidalgo has publicly blamed the state’s “half measures” while reopening for the worsening situation in Harris County.

By June, when COVID-19 hospitalizations had reached an all-time high, Abbott declined to roll back his reopening plan, and instead expanded capacities at bars and restaurants. Under his current order, restaurants may open at 75% and bars may open at 50% if counties allow it.

But in what Hidalgo on Tuesday called a “loophole,” bars may also reopen at 75% if half of their profit comes from food. That’s led to many businesses bringing in food trucks and serving small dishes in order to get around the restrictions.

The Houston region will now join 15 other “Trauma Service Areas” where those expansions are rolled back. There are 22 regional TSAs in total, each containing multiple cities across Texas.

Trauma Service Area R, which includes Galveston, was one of the latest to surpass the 15% threshold. But Galveston County Judge Mark Henry has said he would not enforce the governor’s mandate.

Harris County hospitals reported 22.7% of its beds and 32.5% of its ICUs are filled with COVID-19 patients as of the end of day Monday. Texas Medical Center hospitals in Greater Houston collectively are well into phase 2 of their ICU surge capacity, with 1,382 total ICU beds occupied, 492 of which are occupied by COVID-19 patients.

The news comes as limited vaccine distributions have begun throughout the region. Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday morning told Houston Matters host Craig Cohen that Houston can achieve herd immunity from COVID-19 in just under five months if enough people take the coronavirus vaccine, and if there's enough supply.

But January appointments at the city’s public vaccination clinic are already full, and some surrounding counties have only received limited doses, with Fort Bend County receiving its very first doses Tuesday afternoon.

Turner said he's asking for more state and federal help to increase vaccine supply, and that he's looking to create a “mega location” and a mobile unit to increase vaccine access to Houstonians.

“It's just important, though, that there’s equity in distribution, that we do this as equitably as possible,” Turner said. “But we don't want these vaccines sitting on the shelves. We want them in people’s arms.”

Hidalgo on Tuesday also touted the importance of taking a vaccine when it becomes available, but stressed that vaccinations alone wouldn’t be enough, and urged the public to take safety precautions including social distancing and mask wearing.

"This is a wakeup call for us,” Hidalgo said. “This is the last wakeup call we might get."

Additional reporting by Matt Harab.

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