Sunday Mornings with Rania: Harris County Residents Navigate Changing Rules
The coronavirus pandemic has touched us all. We’ve been infected or know someone who has been; we tragically saw lives lost. We’ve lost money in the market, lost jobs, closed businesses. We have felt isolated being #stuckathome or joyful being #safeathome. We’ve all felt the gravity of the unknown. And now, after seven long weeks filled with emotions and situations we have never seen before, as of May 1, 2020, the State of Texas is opening up... but how are we supposed to respond?
The more I hear from others, the more I realize many are not ready to get back to life as it once was because we no longer know what that means. What are the new rules? What are the risks? What does our new normal look like? Are we wearing masks everywhere? What can law enforcement do if we don’t wear masks? What about employees and employers? What must employers consider when asking people to return? What about employees who are frightened to return? And after all, which businesses are opening?
There’s a lot going on, a lot to navigate and we cannot forget that we are navigating these new waters with a heightened senses of emotion. My hope is to clear up some information and offer guidance that will be helpful for all.
To Wear or Not Wear a Mask?
If you asked me in 2019 what accessory would become a must-have 2020 staple item, I would have never in my wildest dreams said, “face masks!” But here we are. They’re back ordered on Amazon and made and sold by fashion designers locally and internationally. Kids are sewing them and sending to friends. Times have truly changed. We wear them to feel protected and to protect others. That said, aside from our personal preferences, are we required to wear them in public? What about in stores or private places? Many are confused, so here’s the latest:
- Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a mandate saying that from April 27, 2020, for 30 days following, anyone in Harris County (10 years old or older) must wear a mask when outside of their homes; failing to do so merits a $1000 fine. Exceptions to the mask rule: exercising, eating or drinking alone, driving in your own personal car or at home with family members or roommates. Many praised her for the order. Others said it was an over-reach of government. In a press conference on April 27, 2020, Governor Greg Abbott said he “strongly recommend[s] that everyone wear a face mask” but that local officials cannot impose a fine for face mask violation. He also clarified that his “executive order, it supersedes local orders, with regard to any type of fine or penalty for anyone not wearing a mask.”
- Local law enforcement weighed in with HPD Chief Art Acevedo saying they will not impose a fine for mask violation but cautioned the community to remember that places of business can require you to wear a mask while inside their facility and if you refuse, you are “subject to criminal trespass warning or a criminal trespass arrest.” Mayor Sylvester Turner added that law enforcement and the City of Houston will offer masks if you are out in public without one for the next 30 days.
What’s interesting about all of this is the impact it has on our children. While children mature at different ages, I would caution parents to ask kids how they feel when they see people out and about in masks. Are they afraid or uncomfortable when they see strangers wearing masks? I’ve decided, instead of framing the conversation being around getting sick or the impact of the virus, to talk to my kids about how much community members care for each other and that wearing masks are a way to keep one another safe.
Which Businesses are Back to Normal?
Governor Abbott has placed Texas is in Phase I of reopening meaning the state stay-at-home order has expired and retail shops, restaurants, cinemas and malls are allowed to reopen at 25 percent occupancy. To add to all of that, on Sat., May 2, 2020, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo signed a new stay-at-home order extending the Harris County order through May 20, 2020.
What does this mean?
- To begin, Judge Hidalgo’s May 2, 2020 order applies to non-essential businesses and others that were not reopened by Governor Abbott’s order are to remain closed.
- Restaurants. Only six people at a table and parties must be seated at least 6 feet apart. Disposable menus will be used and condiments served in single-use portions, upon request. Hand sanitizing stations must be at entrances.
- Movies. Guests must sit at least two empty seats apart with an empty row in between. If you attend with those you live with, you can sit together but must have an empty two-seat buffer on both sides of your group. Dating? Not a great idea right now - you can sit in the same row but still two seats apart. Seats and other frequently touched surfaces must be cleaned between each screening and theaters with dine-in options must follow restaurant protocol.
- Sports. No contact with other players allowed and only four people can play at a time (i.e., no basketball, soccer and football). Public swimming pools must remain closed.
- Religious services. Must sit at least two empty seats apart from other worshippers not in their households, and there should be an empty row between each person.
- Public museums and libraries require permission from their local government to reopen and can only allow 25 percent capacity. Interactive areas like exhibits and play areas must remain closed.
Governor Abbott is planning Phase II of openings possibly May 18 to include barbershops, hair salons, bars and gyms as long as the state sees "two weeks of data to confirm no flare-up of COVID-19."
Not all Texas officials agree with Governor Abbott’s plan. Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted that he was still concerned about coronavirus clusters in at-risk neighborhoods. What about the Emotions, Benefits, Fear of Lawsuits?
Yes, we’re reopening but many of the workers who make everything run are afraid. Think of this: Thursday, April 30 marked the highest three-day death toll from the coronavirus pandemic with 50 confirmed coronavirus deaths. With a combined death toll of 119, another 1,033 new cases were confirmed that same day. According to Governor Abbott, Thursday’s tallies were released that the state’s infection rate and hospitalization rate have shown downward trends since a peak during the first two weeks of April. With a population of nearly 30 million, many are concerned that Texas is one of the states with the fewest tests per capita and that, without a clear understanding of who and how many are infected, going back to work could cause greater risks to all.
Employers have a hefty weight on their shoulders - do they open and try to return to business or do they stay shut and continue to risk their livelihood? What about their employees? Many have children at home and limited options of where to send them. Not all children are eligible to go to daycare and not all children are capable of staying home alone. There are also many employees who are capable to return to work but are overcome with anxiety. Beyond all of that, employers have to consider the possibility of endangering their workers and exposing themselves to covid-related liabilities. It’s a lot to consider. The best plan will be one decided by the employee and his/her employees together.
It’s also important to note that the Texas Workforce Commission officials said unemployment benefits will not stop for those that go back to work, depending on each person’s situation. TWC is asking those returning to work full-time to stop requesting benefits; clarified that those returning to work part-time will receive adjusted payment amounts based on hours worked.
As we all try to work together, there are so many new norms to navigate through. I know we can do it and will do it, for the betterment of our community. Let’s be patient, stay healthy and safe as we get back up and thrive together.
Read past Sunday Mornings with Rania posts here. Find more information on Crime Stoppers of Houston on their website or follow them on Facebook. Have topics in mind that you’d like Rania to write about? Comment below or email her at [email protected]. Rania is co-host of a weekly podcast which features interesting local and national guests who used their platforms for the good of the community. Connect with Rania on Instagram and Twitter.
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