Restaurants in some parts of Houston must decrease indoor dining capacity to 50 percent effective immediately, and some bars must close all indoor service, as COVID-19 cases continue to spike following Thanksgiving.
A letter sent to several upper Gulf Coast county judges on the evening of December 21 indicated that restaurants and bars in Trauma Service Area R — which includes Brazoria, Chambers, Galveston, Hardin, Jasper, Jefferson, Liberty, Newton, and Orange counties — must roll back capacity after COVID-19 hospitalizations in that area rose to more than 15 percent for over a week.
The letter, from the Department of Health and Human Services, puts into play a plan established by Gov. Greg Abbott in October that made hospitalizations — not total number of cases — the metric for determining restrictions on social gatherings.
Under part of that plan, Abbott said that the state’s 22 trauma service areas would need to keep COVID-related hospitalizations under 15 percent consistently in order for bars to stay open. Seven days of hospitalizations over 15 percent would trigger a rollback. Abbott also added the caveat that county judges must opt into the plan.
At the time, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo decided not to let bars reopen, saying “Indoor, maskless gatherings should not be taking place right now.” But in several counties on the outskirts of Houston, including Galveston, Brazoria, and Montgomery, judges were eager to open as soon as possible. Minutes after Abbott’s announcement in October, Galveston County Judge Mark Henry tweeted, “I want to let small business owners know that I’ll be reopening bars immediately.”
In an interview with Houston Public Media on December 22, Henry said he had no intention of enforcing DHHS’s order, saying he felt the state’s data was flawed. He also said he couldn’t enforce the order even if he wanted to.
“I talked to the sheriff this morning,” Henry told the radio station. “He has no resources available to go police this. I talked to the district attorney. He cautioned everyone against filing charges, because he probably won’t take them.”
Abbott’s plan has already triggered rollbacks in other parts of the state, such as Dallas County, which at the beginning of December decreased restaurant capacity to 50 percent. Like Hidalgo, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins decided to opt out of allowing bars to reopen under Abbott’s plan.
Now, for the parts of Houston that lie within Brazoria County, bars must yet again close, and restaurants must decrease capacity to 50 percent. Those restrictions will last until there are seven consecutive days of COVID-19 hospitalizations under 15 percent in TSA-R.