Harris County’s top government official has recommended that all Houstonians — vaccinated and unvaccinated — start wearing masks indoors once again.
Judge Lina Hidalgo made the recommendations during a press conference Thursday morning, which also included infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Hotez. “Over the past few weeks, the region has been hit hard by the delta variant,” Hidalgo said. The variant makes up more than 84 percent of cases in the Houston area, with cases doubling roughly every two weeks, she said.
Hidalgo also said the region’s ICU population is doubling roughly every four weeks, and that Harris County public health data indicates that nearly all of the breakthrough cases — that is, cases among the already vaccinated — have been caused by the delta variant. In addition, Houston Methodist Hospital also recently reported a case of the new lambda variant this week, the Houston Chronicle reports. Per Hotez, the delta variant is twice as contagious as the original COVID-19 variant.
More than half of the county’s population has been vaccinated against COVID-19, but Hidalgo notes that the surge can be attributed in part to the fact that “the unvaccinated are interacting as though they are vaccinated.”
Hidalgo also raised the county’s COVID-19 threat level from Yellow to Orange, the second highest level. Orange, or Level 2, signifies an uncontrolled level of COVID-19 in Harris County. Level 2 recommends that people “minimize all contact” with those outside their direct households, and wear masks when in public. The last time Harris County was at the orange level was in May 2021. Now 500 days into the county’s public health declaration, issued in March 2020, Hidalgo warned of new, more infectious variants that could spur a fourth wave of the pandemic.
“Now I need you to wear your mask again,” Hidalgo said, adding that even vaccinated people can transmit the delta variant when unmasked. She also urged Houstonians to encourage others to get vaccinated as quickly as possible.
Hidalgo’s announcement is likely to affect restaurants and bars in Houston, which have only just begun the long recovery from last summer’s pandemic surge. Whereas last year, nearly all of Houston’s restaurants required that customers wear a mask unless seated at a table, many of the city’s businesses did away with that requirement when Texas Governor Greg Abbot announced, in March, that Texas was reopening — removing the statewide mask mandate, allowing restaurants to return to 100 percent capacity, and allowing bars in the state to reopen fully.
As part of that declaration, Abbott also signed an order stating that no local government could pass any laws requiring residents to wear masks, and could not penalize a resident or business for failing to follow social distancing guidelines. He did say that private businesses may continue to require masks.
That’s left local officials like Hidalgo with little recourse — Hidalgo can only make recommendations, not implement enforceable mandates — and left businesses like restaurants who do want to require that their customers wear masks without the statutory support to enforce those rules”
Houston is just the latest city to announce new masking guidelines as COVID cases yet again surge. Earlier this week, Austin Public Health made a similar recommendation, as did New Orleans’ Mayor and the city’s health director. The week before, Los Angeles County in California passed a full legal resolution requiring masks. Elsewhere, cities have begun requiring visitors from various Southern states to quarantine again.