As Houston and Harris County tightened restrictions on businesses and daily life in March, local leaders often thanked residents here for heeding their calls.
Those efforts and sacrifices, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said, helped the region escape the dire circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic emerging in other pockets of the country.
Now, as Gov. Greg Abbott gradually opens the state’s economy, the local leaders are urging their constituents to remain vigilant, even as many restrictions are lifted.
The governor cited rising testing capacity and the falling percentage of new cases for beginning to reopen earlier this month. On Monday, he also noted the availability of hospital beds, which have remained well within capacity here, and the falling percentage of people who have tested positive.
“Our focus is to keep you safe while also restoring your ability to get you back to work,” said Abbott.
The governor’s orders override local restrictions and now map out a way for nearly all businesses to open in some fashion. Local residents have been able to frequent restaurants, retail stores, malls, and movie theaters with limited capacities since May 1. A new order Monday expanded those capacities and added gyms, childcare centers and massage businesses to the mix, with bars, bowling alleys and others joining Friday.
“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” Turner said of the new openings. “It’s becoming very, very difficult now because people are getting mixed messages… And when the messaging is confusing, people hear what they want to hear.”
Hidalgo struck a similar tone Tuesday while urging her colleagues on Commissioners Court to extend the county’s disaster declaration through June 10. The city’s declaration is indefinite.
“I keep saying: Don’t tempt fate,” Hidalgo said. “Because I’m just concerned folks will get so comfortable pushing, pushing, pushing, until we end up in a bad situation.”
The county judge said folks have settled into a routine, but it is important to ensure that it does not slide into complacency.
“The virus hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s a very strange thing — we’ve fallen into a bit of a new normal, but … we may well be in the eye of the hurricane. I hope we’re not.”
Local health officials have said the region was able to flatten its curve of cases, though the total tallies remain on the rise. Texas hit a record 1,556 new positive results on Saturday. Texas surpassed 50,000 cases on Tuesday, with Harris County accounting for just under 10,000 of them. The Houston region has been reporting more than 1,500 new cases a week in May.
The mayor regularly has deployed local star power to bolster his messages to take proper safety measures. He called on gymnastics superstar Simone Biles, rapper Slim Thug and Astros shortstop Carlos Correa for a “Mask Up” campaign to encourage the wearing of facial coverings. Tina Lawson Knowles, Beyoncé’s mother, joined the mayor to talk about efforts to open a mobile testing center.
Turner said Tuesday he also has taped a radio commercial and will be releasing public service announcements to further encourage social distancing.
The city and county have focused efforts in recent weeks on bolstering testing and contact tracing. The county had about 300 on the rolls as of Monday, Hidalgo said. The city’s health department has hosted job fairs to hire a similar number, and has about 125 city workers on the job already.
That infrastructure ideally would have been in place before the state began to reopen, Turner said.
“I want to be able to say everything is in place in terms of infrastructure to keep you safe,” Turner said. “And I’m not going to ask you to do something that I’m uncomfortable with doing myself.”
Medical experts say it is essential that the public continue to practice social distancing, wear masks, wash their hands frequently and disinfect common surfaces as more businesses open and residents come out of their homes more frequently.
Going to restaurants, bars or gyms as they reopen is not necessarily a bad idea, said Firas Zabaneh, director of system infection prevention & control for Houston Methodist Hospital System. By taking proper precautions, such as avoiding prolonged interactions within six feet of others and regularly cleaning common surfaces, Zabaneh said people can congregate with a decreased risk of contracting the virus.
“We have to be really careful,” he said. “You want to make sure that the restaurant or bar that you go to has sectioned off areas out so you can maintain social distancing. When you’re having prolonged interactions with people, especially in enclosed spaces, it becomes more important to wear a mask.”
People with compromised immune systems or who have underlying medical conditions should consider being more cautious, said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System, because research shows they face a higher risk of contracting the virus.
Regularly disinfecting things like door handles, cell phones, keys, gym equipment, grocery carts and other items is still is recommended by health officials, as is frequent hand-washing.
Staff writer Zach Despart contributed to this report.