Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday plans to move to the worst threat level, calling for a return to the stay-at-home conditions of March and April, as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to spike, three county officials said.
She will also ban outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people in unincorporated Harris County, while urging mayors to do the same in their cities, the officials said. This would apply to scheduled in-person high school graduations.
Hidalgo lacks the authority, however, to issue a mandatory stay-at-home order as she did in March, since Gov. Greg Abbott took control of the state’s reopening in May. She has said the governor reopened the state too quickly, leaving Harris County at risk of an uncontrolled outbreak that has now unfolded.
Hidalgo will announce the threat level downgrade at an 11 a.m. news conference.
Abbott on Friday morning ordered all bars in Texas to again close, effective at noon, in his latest effort to contain the spread of coronavirus. The governor also said restaurants will have to return to 50 percent capacity; they had been allowed to operate at 75 percent since June 12.
In addition, Abbott permitted local officials to limit outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people, clearing the way for Hidalgo to do so.
The county judge on June 11 unveiled a four-stage threat level system to help residents more easily understand the severity of the pandemic here. Hidalgo initially placed the county at Level 2, the second most serious, which is defined by an ongoing transmission of the virus. She warned then that an increase in new cases could place the county at “the precipice of disaster.”
Since last week, the county has met four of the five criteria to move to Level 1, described as a worsening outbreak causing a surge in demand at health care facilities. These benchmarks include seven-day increasing trends in new cases and hospitalizations.
The Texas Medical Center on Thursday reported 100 percent of its base ICU capacity was full for the first time during the pandemic, driven by a jump in COVID patients. The hospital may exhaust surge beds — temporary space for use in emergencies — by July 6, according to modeling by the hospital system.
Harris County has a temporary field hospital outside NRG Stadium that can be activated in several days, a spokesman for Hidalgo said. The county in April erected a $17 million facility, but closed the site when it went unused.
The Houston region has set COVID hospitalization records 12 of the past 14 days, with a total of 2,416 patients on Thursday. There have been 504 deaths in the region from the virus and more than 37,000 residents infected, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis.
This story will be updated.