We were "perilously close" to reaching the threshold in which restaurants would have to roll back capacities and bars would close, said Houston's chief medical officer, Dr. David Persse, on Monday. Well, today we've crossed it.
Back in September Gov. Greg Abbott made hospitalization rates the key for re-openings. At that time, so long as a Trauma Service Area—Harris County is in Area Q, along with Austin, Colorado, Fort Bend, Matagorda, Montgomery, Walker, Waller, and Wharton counties—had less than 15 percent of its hospital occupancy filled with Covid-19 patients, most businesses in the region could expand to 75-percent capacity. But if a TSA was above 15 percent for seven consecutive days, then most businesses, including restaurants, gyms, and museums, would have to roll back to 50-percent capacities, and other businesses, like bars, would have to close.
Well, Houston, Area Q has had seven straight days over 15 percent, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services tracker:
- Dec 29 – 15.48 percent
- Dec 30 – 15.46 percent
- Dec 31 – 16.71 percent
- Jan 1 – 16.99 percent
- Jan 2 - 17.44 percent
- Jan 3 – 18.21 percent
- Jan 4 — 19.9 percent
So what does this mean? Until the region brings the percentage of hospitalized Covid-19 patients below 15 percent again for seven consecutive days, the area is being put back into a partial lockdown. Hospitals must now cancel all elective surgeries (a move the Texas Medical Center has just made), while other businesses, like restaurants, must scale back to 50 percent capacity. Hair and nail salons are allowed to remain at 75 percent capacity but must be using masks and other protective gear.
And bars, or at least the bars that are still only operating as bars, must close. This will be an interesting development in Harris County, where 640 bars have obtained restaurant permits since the start of the pandemic, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, since these establishments get to keep operating under those restaurant permits, albeit at 50 percent capacity.
"This is a wakeup call for us," Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said this afternoon, shortly before the numbers were posted by DSHS. "This is the last wakeup call we might get."
Hidalgo pleaded for people to "stem the tide" of these hospitalizations—currently there are only 97 ICU beds left in our region, 1,352 ventilators available, and 1,944 hospital beds in this entire TSA region, which has an estimated population of 6.68 million. She urged community action, including supporting restaurants through takeout and not dine-in, avoiding crowds, getting tested, wearing masks, all of the things we've been doing for the better part of a year.
Several other Texas regions have already crossed this threshold, including those containing El Paso and Galveston, but Hidalgo said the rollbacks didn't necessarily mean Covid-19 numbers began to reverse. Reaching this threshold does not in and of itself change our trajectory or determine whether the case numbers will continue to go up, she said. "That's in our hands."