Historic stay-at-home orders for Victoria County will limit when and why residents are allowed to leave their homes starting Thursday.
The “Stay Home-Stay Safe” orders were signed Wednesday by County Judge Ben Zeller and Mayor Rawley McCoy. They will be in effect until April 30.
Victoria’s mayor and county judge signed the new orders as five new cases of the disease were confirmed Wednesday, bringing the county’s total number of confirmed cases to 20. The climbing number indicates Victoria is getting dangerously close to a moderate spread of the virus, officials said.
Of those patients, at least two are considered recovered, said David Gonzales, the director of the Victoria County Public Health Department. Six patients with COVID-19 are receiving care in Victoria hospitals, although two are expected to be discharged Wednesday. One patient is in critical condition, said Dr. John McNeill, Victoria’s public health authority.
The order does not extend to religious services, but officials urged residents to go to services online and refrain from in-person services.
“The thing is that you don’t need to be around other people, and that means don’t be around more than 10 people,” McNeill said. “God would like you to stay home and pray, I think, as compared to going out and spreading this disease.”
The orders limit when and which residents can leave their homes in the next month. They incorporate the requirements of a different order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday but are more specific and stringent than the governor’s statewide order.
Victoria’s mandate requires all businesses that are allowed to stay open, if they are defined as “essential services,” must enforce social distancing requirements and increase the cleaning of frequently touched surfaces. These requirements mean that any business that stays open must take steps to keep a physical distance between employees and customers and to prevent large crowds of any kind. Some of Victoria’s large retailers were still welcoming crowded aisles and packed parking lots in recent days, officials said.
Victoria officials said the orders were complicated and could be challenging to understand, especially as workers who still have jobs but cannot work remotely try to figure out whether their work is classified as an “essential service.” Victoria’s orders rely on federal guidelines that outline essential services. Such work includes medical and health care, telecommunications, information technology systems, defense, food and agriculture, transportation and logistics, energy, water and wastewater, law enforcement, and public works, according to the guidelines.
“As with the first executive order from the governor, this one also needed a lot of help in terms of clarification, which we’ve done,” Zeller said.
Victoria’s orders are in effect in conjunction with Abbott’s executive order, which permits people to leave their homes for things like grocery shopping, going to the gas station, going to the hospital, or exercising outside, as long as people take the necessary precautions as they have been advised to do for weeks. However, these exceptions would not apply to those with symptoms of COVID-19, those waiting to receive COVID-19 test results, those who are confirmed to have COVID-19, or those who live with someone with COVID-19, who may not leave their homes without authorization under Victoria’s orders.
The orders will be enforced by local authorities, and violators could face a $1,000 fine and 180 days in jail.
“If you have any symptoms, then you need to stay at home,” McNeill said. “And remember that we now have an order, and I would hate for it to come to this, but there are actually criminal fines if people do not obey those orders. We don’t want people out in the public spreading this disease any more than it’s already spreading.”
The orders also mandate any resident who is sick with symptoms of COVID-19 to stay home while they are sick unless they leave to receive medical care. Any residents waiting for the results of a COVID-19 test cannot leave their home unless they are doing so to have samples collected for the test. For any residents who test positive for COVID-19, neither they nor anyone in their household can leave their home until after they are cleared to do so.
The order reads that any person instructed to isolate at home “cannot go to work, or any other location unless expressly permitted by written order of the local health authority, until such time as each member of the household or living unit has been cleared by the protocol established by the local health authority.”
At least some of Victoria’s COVID-19 patients went to work while sick but before they realized they had COVID-19, officials said. The orders will mandate that anyone with symptoms of COVID-19, which include cough, fever, and shortness of breath, stay home.
Throughout the U.S., most aspects of daily life have stopped or been severely altered as communities work to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. The virus, which was first discovered in humans last year, causes a respiratory infection that can result in serious illness or even death in the most severe cases. Because there is no vaccine yet and because the virus appears to be easily spread between people, most of the country is staying in their homes to try and stop the spread of the virus.
McNeill urged extra vigilance because it’s possible that the new coronavirus can be spread even by people who don’t show any symptoms of the disease at all.
That’s “the biggest question in medicine right now,” McNeill said about how and if the virus can be spread even by people who are healthy. “We look back at some (patients), and they deny any symptoms at all. And that’s when it gets really scary.”
While officials were delivering the dark news, Victoria resident Doris Mayfield stood alone in nearby Memorial Rose Garden at Riverside Park, taking photos of the flowers to send to her 86-year-old mother back at home.
She explained: “Just looking at all the pretty flowers, taking a break from all the bad news.”
This story was updated April 2, 2020, to clarify the local ruling of religious services during the new stay-at-home orders.