Shared from the 3/18/2020 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Leaders extend disaster measures

Houston city and county officials add time for coronavirus

Harris County and the city of Houston on Tuesday extended disaster declarations in response to the coronavirus outbreak, though for different lengths of time, as the region endured its first day in relative isolation with schools closed, residents generally avoiding large gatherings and restaurants limited to takeout and delivery.

Houston City Council lengthened its order indefinitely; at the same time a few blocks away Commissioners Court added just eight days. The orders allow local government to more quickly to purchase needed supplies and services to slow the spread of the virus and grant Mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo emergency powers to prevent people from congregating.

“This is a crisis. I hope there’s no one around this table that’s questioning that,” Turner told his colleagues on city council. “And it’s acrisis that’s going to be with us for several weeks, if not several months.”

Shortly after the Commissioners Court meeting, Hidalgo announced the unincorporated county had three new confirmed cases of coronavirus, bringing the total to 11. Two of the new patients are in critical condition, she said, adding that an initial investigation has found no evidence they had traveled recently.

Each body prepared to govern for an extended period of time under social distancing rules, which health officials insist are crucial to preventing an unmanageable surge in cases here. Their meeting chambers were mostly vacant during Tuesday morning’s emergency sessions.

Outside, traffic trickled through downtown Houston with schools closed, office tower tenants working remotely and residents urged to sequester in their homes, save for trips the grocery store.

At City Hall, council members voted 15-1 to extend their declaration, with Greg Travis as the lone opponent.

Turner declared the emergency last week, after the region’s first confirmed COVID-19 case of community spread, in which the virus was contracted locally rather than through travel. The order was used to cancel the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo on March 11.

Some council members took issue with the indefinite nature of the extension. Travis, who bemoaned the rodeo’s closure, proposed a one-week extension and weekly votes to lengthen the declaration, based on new developments.

Mike Knox, the only council member to support Travis’ motion, said the mayor has not communicated enough with his colleagues at the horseshoe. Others said the situation was too fluid to knee-cap the city’s ability to respond.

Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin cited Monday, when the city and Harris County closed bars and restricted restaurants, as an example of the whiplash some elected officials have felt.

He said the city was preparing an occupancy limit at those establishments until President Donald Trump issued guidance asking people to avoid groups of 10 or more.

“You own a bar, what would you do?” Martin said to Travis, who responded that he would have proceeded with the occupancy limit.

Travis also pointed out the council itself — a group of 16 — was breaking the president’s guidance about groups of 10 or more people.

Some members took their own precautions.

For much of the meeting, Councilman Jerry Davis sat in the last row of the audience.

Councilwoman Abbie Kamin did not attend at all, as she is self-quarantining after coming in contact with someone who had a direct encounter with a positive case.

Nine blocks east, Commissioners Court planned to extend its own disaster declaration by 30 days.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, however, asked for a shorter extension so other elected officials and the public can give input.

The other four members agreed and unanimously extended the declaration though March 25.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she hoped Cagle was acting in good faith and not trying to build discord around the declaration.

“There are lives on the line in this thing,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve got to stick together, and this is not the time to be whipping up political opposition.”

Precinct 2Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked Hidalgo to do all her office can to halt evictions, as the closure of schools and businesses has left some residents in a precarious financial position.

Cagle said Commissioners Court should not take any action seen as swaying eviction proceedings in favor of defendants or ordering judges how to perform their duties.

“I’m just asking for the judge to halt the process until we can see some light at the end of this tunnel,” Garcia said.

Assistant County Attorney Barbara Armstrong said emergency powers allow the county judge to close public buildings and allocate resources, which Hidalgo could exercise to prevent hearings from taking place.

Hidalgo said she has spoken with several of the county’s 16 justices of the peace, who have indicated they intend to temporarily stay eviction proceedings.

Commissioners Court also approved more cleaning and maintenance resources for the Harris County Jail, where the sheriff’s office hopes to prevent cases from spreading among inmates.

County staff took measures to ensure asterile chamber for the meeting and barred the public from the gallery.

Health workers took the temperature ofevery attendee.

Court members and department heads did their best to transform the normal hand-shaking, backslapping environment with awkward nods and elbow-bumps.

Constables policed the ninth-floor complex to ensure no room exceeded 10 occupants.

Next Tuesday’s regular court session will present a more difficult challenge, since the sessions are crowded and regularly exceed six hours.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said meetings can be held on a conference call, a possibility Precinct 1Commissioner Rodney Ellis said the court should consider.

“It’s nice being with all of you, but if you don’t feel good, stay home” Ellis said. zach.despart@chron.com dylan.mcguinness

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