• The Star Staff

Houston moves to ‘severe’ COVID warning. Will enough people listen?

By Manny Fernandez and Danny Montgomery

Alex Belt, a single mother of three girls and the owner of Silly Silly Girls gift boutique, has a succinct way of describing her life in Houston as officials warn of an alarming spike in coronavirus cases: “Business as usual without the business.”

When Belt, 46, first reopened her store after weeks of mandatory business closures, a wave of loyal customers came in to show their support. Lately, though, the store has often been empty again as Houston residents try to make sense of a fluctuating series of recommendations from state and local officials and a virus that seems to be characterized chiefly by its unpredictability.

“It’s hurt us all over the board,” Belt said. “People are just scared.”

On Friday, a troubling spike in virus cases led county officials to again urge residents to stay in their homes, nearly two months after the state had started to reopen. Texas, like Florida and parts of California, Idaho and other states where cases are on the rise, has reinstated some of the restrictions it once lifted. But some fear that Texans who were told only recently that it was safe to gather in small numbers, shop and go to restaurants may not be as willing to hunker down inside — again.

When officials in Harris County, which includes Houston, sent a message to residents’ cellphones Friday evening, alerting them that the virus threat level had been bumped up to “LEVEL 1 (RED) SEVERE,” many residents were doing the opposite of what the advisory recommended: avoid gatherings, stay at home except for necessary tasks and wear a mask.

The bumper-to-bumper vehicles crawling along a section of Interstate 610 resembled pre-coronavirus traffic. And at a shopping plaza off Interstate 10 with a view of the downtown skyline, the parking lot was packed, as shoppers headed in and out of a grocery store, liquor shop and salon.

Houston had until recently avoided the worst of the pandemic. In April, county officials had shuttered a medical shelter that was meant to serve coronavirus patients in case hospitals were overrun. That never happened. On May 1, Gov. Greg Abbott said he would begin to reopen the state in phases.

But Friday, Lina Hidalgo, the Harris County judge, warned that hospitals would be overwhelmed if people did not stay inside.

“We are in a worse situation now than we were back then, and the only thing that worked back then was flattening that curve by staying home,” Hidalgo said at a news conference, adding bluntly that the rise in cases was happening because “we opened too quickly.”

Harris County, home to about 4.7 million people, has seen a sudden rise in reported cases over the last few weeks. There have now been at least 28,255 cases in the county and 361 deaths, a majority of which have come from within Houston’s city limits.

But despite Hidalgo’s urging residents to stay home, the county is not under a stay-at-home order as it was two months ago because Abbott’s reopening guidelines supersede Hidalgo’s recommendations. She said at the news conference that she had urged the governor to let her issue an enforceable stay-at-home order, and when that did not happen, she pleaded with residents to remain at home voluntarily.

At Gatlin’s BBQ in Houston, the restaurant owners kept a tighter limit on customers than the state guidelines require because Mary Gatlin, 69, a co-owner, felt it was simply too soon. They have been mostly serving takeout and allowing customers at only 25% of full capacity. Even so, they are sometimes selling out of brisket and ribs.

“Our neighbors all around the area, they actually support us, and we really thank God for them, because they’re helping to keep us open and to keep the employees that we have working,” Gatlin said.

Houstonians are not the only ones who have had to deal with whipsawing public health guidelines. In Florida, where cases are also rising, officials banned alcohol consumption at bars, an acknowledgment that infections could be spreading there. Bars in and around Boise, Idaho, were ordered closed only weeks after they had opened.

Russ Duke, the director of the state health agency in Idaho that oversees four central counties, moved Ada County, which includes Boise, back one stage in its reopening progression this week after investigators determined that half of the region’s new cases were among people who had flocked to the just-opened bars and nightclubs. Duke said it seemed increasingly clear that reopening would have to happen slowly and cautiously, allowing a reversal to more restrictive measures if things got worse.

“We’ll be able to kind of dial this up and down based on what we’re seeing,” Duke said, later adding: “The sad reality is there’s going to be no choice but to implement restrictions and lift restrictions until we have a vaccine or an effective treatment.”

That back-and-forth in several states raised questions about how seriously the public would comply after weeks of relative freedom.

“It’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube once you’ve got it out,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “It’s hard to get enough people to follow the rules when the rules keep changing.”

As cases rise in Harris County, residents have overrun testing sites. Two stadium testing locations in Houston reached capacity just hours after opening Saturday, according to the city’s Health Department.

Joi Ross-Moore said she arrived at a drive-thru facility at 8 a.m. Tuesday and was told that people had been waiting since 4 a.m. Unable to get a test, Ross-Moore had to go to a different facility the next day.

“It’s exploded here,” Ross-Moore said.

Belt saw a good uptick in business at her boutique after it reopened, with a lot of loyal customers — mostly neighborhood moms — coming back to show their support, buying artwork, gifts and toys.

Since then, while there are plenty of people at malls and restaurants, there have been only a handful of customers at her store.

The drop in sales is hurting her bottom line, but she understands that people are frightened. She is, too.

“This is unfortunately what we have to deal with,” she said. “It’s scary.”

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

© The San Juan Daily Star