This is a developing story and will be updated.
Dallas County residents can expect to stay home until May 20 as the fight against the coronavirus intensifies and the number of people confirmed with COVID-19 reached nearly 1,000.
Commissioners on Friday gave Judge Clay Jenkins the authority to continue emergency orders that ultimately extend the state’s first stay-at-home mandate. The decision came after a tense two-hour meeting punctuated by debates over hospital readiness, the cost of the coronavirus pandemic and how best to help the region’s most vulnerable.
May 20 is not an arbitrary date. Health care experts and hospital CEOs told commissioners before their vote that extending the stay-at-home order until then provided the region its best shot at not overwhelming hospitals.
“If we continue, the burden on hospitals would be manageable,” Dr. Phil Huang, the county’s health department director said.
Various models that estimate how many people will contract COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and how many will need hospitalization vary. However, most suggest that Dallas will see a surge in need toward the end of April and early May.
The extension comes 24 days after Dallas County announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19. The coronavirus has quickly spread around the globe infecting more than 1 million people.
“We are working with the health care community and the business community to put together the best way to save as many lives as possible,” Jenkins said, rebuffing concerns from his fellow commissioners who pushed for changes to the order that would undo some of the restrictions. “We have to back our health care heroes.”
Since the state has largely adopted the rules first put in place by Dallas, the 4-1 vote changes little for the public.
But it likely makes Dallas County the state’s first and only municipality to extend the restrictions until May. Harris County, which includes Houston, has only prolonged its order until April 30, which mirrors the state.
Ultimately, Dallas County’s order was slightly amended to instruct Jenkins to find innovative ways to provide services to the community that does not increase the spread of the virus.
As of Friday, Dallas County recorded 921 confirmed cases of COVID-19 — 17 have died from complications with the disease. The number of people confirmed in Dallas County is second only in the Lone Star State to Harris.
While most experience only minor symptoms such as a dry cough or short-lived fever, cases can be severe. At its worst, the virus has sent hundreds of thousands of people to the hospital. In some American cities and countries, hospitals have become overrun with people needing critical attention.
Commissioner John Wiley Price, a Democrat who represents southern Dallas, voted against the plan because he said the restrictions were “choking” his constituents. He urged during the meeting to open up pawn shops in order to help people get access to much-needed cash.
“An X-Box will feed a family for a couple of days,” he said, adding later, “I have to get some relief for my community.”
After weeks of deferring to local governments, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday put in place a statewide order limiting only “essential” work and errands. Abbott has wrestled with how to manage the pandemic that has spread through half the state — the second largest in the nation — while a vocal minority of Republicans and rural voters view it an urban issue. He attempted this week to distance his decision from the rhetoric “stay-at-home” embraced by Democratic leaders in urban centers such as Dallas, Harris and Travis counties.
Jenkins, however, warmly embraced the governor’s decision, going so far as to say the state had adopted his rules.
Dallasites who don’t work an “essential” job must continue to stay at home except to grocery shop, visit the doctor or pick up medicine.
The county, like many other local governments, is continuing its own orders so it can establish more granular rules and policies. For instance, the county has already established guidelines for construction workers. Rules for grocery stores and box stores such as Walmart and Target are expected.