County Judge Clay Jenkins and Dr. Philip Huang, the head of Dallas County Health and Human Services. (Photo courtesy NBC 5's Live Feed)

Public Health

Dallas County Faces Shelter-In-Place Order, Eliminating Gatherings

We are now the most aggressive county in the state in fighting the spread of coronavirus. All gatherings are off. It could save thousands of lives.

Starting tomorrow—that’s March 23—at 11:59 p.m., we are ordered to shelter in place to slow the spread of coronavirus. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins announced Sunday evening that residents are allowed trips outside their homes for “essential work,” groceries, bank visits, and walks, but little else. You’re required now to stay 6 feet away from others, even while walking your dogs. (The judge suggested that if you see people not adhering to the rule, you politely say, “Six feet,” to remind them.) Restaurants and distilleries can still deliver and allow curbside takeout. But “non-essential travel” is now banned. The announcement came hours after Gov. Greg Abbott declined to make the rule statewide, instead pushing the decision onto local governments because “many … counties have zero people testing positive for COVID-19.”

In Dallas County, all gatherings are now banned. That means no weddings and no funerals until at least April 3, and likely beyond it. The order can be extended.

“It makes me sick that we’re at this point,” Jenkins said in the press conference, adding, “I’m pretty sure I covered what I’d like other counties to do.”

Things have moved fast, and Dallas County is now the state’s most aggressive in measures to limit exposure to the virus. Last week at this time, 499 people could legally gather together. On Monday, Mayor Eric Johnson ordered bars and dining rooms to close. On Wednesday, Jenkins banned social gatherings of more than 10 people. That includes your standard backyard barbecues and birthday parties.

In a statement, Mayor Eric Johnson said the city was still seeking guidance on which businesses will need to close. Bars, dine-in restaurants, hair and nail salons, barber shops, tattoo parlors, and other direct contact businesses are ordered to cease operations into next month. That could be extended as well. Here’s his statement:

“We are still working through the language of the county’s quickly evolving orders and discussing the best ways to enforce these orders citywide, but I support a stay-at-home approach to slow the spread of COVID-19. While this approach likely means our city will experience economic difficulties, our top priority is public health, and it’s vitally important that we take the steps necessary to save lives and prevent strain on our healthcare system.”

“Essential Retail” in the order is defined as follows:

“Food service providers, including grocery stores, warehouse stores, big-box stores, bodegas, liquor stores, gas stations and convenience stores, farmers’ markets that sell food products and household staples. Food cultivation, including farming, fishing, and livestock.”

Today, Jenkins announced that 40 percent of the county’s 131 cases of COVID-19 had no travel history.

It’s here. The numbers Jenkins included in the press conference, based on the widely cited Imperial College of London study on the coronavirus, showed an estimate of 430,000 statewide deaths if Texas continues its current style of social distancing. That number drops to 5,000 with the shelter-in-place order.

Also here is the need for people who understand what we are up against. I’ve been checking in daily with Dr. Mark Casanova, the head of the Dallas County Medical Society. Casanova had a personal take on what these caregivers are going through. It should help you consider deeply your exposure to the outside world.

“If you were to ask me, What are some of your concerns? I’ll be honest. It’s about my dad who lives with me. I’m concerned about that. I’ve got my daughter who’s not with me right now and I miss her,” he said. I could hear him choking up. “I think the other concern many of us have is not so much getting dreadfully ill, it’s being pulled from the fight. I think we don’t want to be pulled from the fight. So we need everybody’s help to help us stay in it.”

“I’m saying all this with a reasonable degree of optimism and appreciation,” he’d said earlier. “My sense is the public is getting it. I hope I’m not wrong. I have to try and find silver linings. I have to or I get depressed.”

Two more drive-thru testing centers opened this weekend, one in parking lot E of the American Airlines Center and another at the Ellis Davis Field House in southern Dallas. That’s about five times our testing capacity, adding another 5,000 per week to the 1,100 or so that the county lab could do, in addition to whatever is happening in private labs. Abbott said testing was still woefully lacking and that he’d be requesting the federal government to prioritize the materials. The Dallas Morning News broke the story of how the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council led an effort to get Abbott to issue a statewide order to shelter-in-place. The concern is that hospitals will run out of beds needed to treat patients without more significant prohibitions.

It didn’t work. But Abbott did, however, lift licensing restrictions to get more nurses into the field, including those who are retired and others who are in their final year of training.

This is our reality for the foreseeable future. If we want to make it out of this, we need to do what we can. For most of us, that means staying inside. Maybe donating to a nonprofit or a Go Fund Me for laid-off workers if we can afford it. Not overbuying at the grocery store. Reaching out to ask your loved ones to see how they’re doing. For others, it might mean re-configuring your business to help. Lewisville’s Bendt Distilling Co. is turning its alcohol byproduct into hand sanitizer and shipping it to first responders and school districts. Pecan Lodge is starting a nonprofit. Full City Rooster is converting its 800-square-foot backroom into a space where restaurants can drop off gloves that were for their now-quiet kitchens.

All of these things, no matter how small or large, will help. And there is a peace in recognizing that—maybe even enough to briefly calm the anxiety that now hums in so many of us. We’ll need that. This fight is only beginning.

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