GALVESTON

The number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in the region fell far enough for long enough last week that businesses can welcome more people inside and bars that at least theoretically had been closed can legally reopen for the first time since the end of December.

Fewer than 15 percent of patients in Trauma Service Area R were being treated for COVID-19 from Feb. 14 to Feb. 20, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The streak means restaurants and retail stores in Galveston County and eight other counties in the region can return to 75 percent capacity. Bars can reopen to 50 percent capacity.

Although the change might have little practical effect for businesses, some operators hope it inspires people to go out more, they said.

Capacities had been lower, and bars completely closed, under pandemic emergency orders Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued in effort to preserve hospital capacity to treat people with the virus.

Abbott issued the orders in October, but the region including Galveston County didn’t hit the 15 percent trigger until late December, when cases began a steep, sustained climb during the holiday season.

“We weren’t really enforcing them, but I’m glad business owners have a chance to get more back to somewhat normal, although it’s still not normal,” Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said Monday.

County leaders, including Henry, initially criticized the measures because the 15 percent or more regional hospitalization rate was driven by places other than Galveston County.

County leaders sought an exemption because the COVID hospitalization rate here was relatively low. They even tried to join a different trauma service area — the one that includes Harris County.

The same rules went into effect in Harris County just days later, however, and the state declined to consider an exemption.

Restrictions would go back into effect if the region once again breaches the 15 percent hospitalization rate for seven consecutive days.

Local officials hope that with thousands now vaccinated and everyone familiar with COVID precautions, there won’t be another serious spike in cases, they said.

The easing of restrictions might not be all that noticeable because many businesses had adjusted their practices to accommodate them.

Kelly Railean said she changed the type of permit her business, San Leon-based Railean Distillers, operates under to stay open. Terms of the permit meant Railean had to make more than 51 percent of her business’s revenues from something other than alcohol sales.

She began offering cheese platters and held craft nights and a campfire s’more cookout.

Railean said she didn’t want to risk just ignoring the rules, as some bars had done.

“I don’t want to be harassed by TABC,” Railean said. “I don’t want my license pulled. I don’t want to be that person out there that has complaints against them.”

Other businesses that have been open might still be limited in the number of customers they serve because of social distancing rules, said James Clark, president of the Galveston chapter of the Texas Restaurant Association.

“The capacity difference, while great to have, is actually minor while still observing the 6-foot table spacing,” Clark said. “The biggest excitement is the hopeful reduction of fear to go out to eat and safely socialize more and more.”

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; john.ferguson@galvnews.com or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

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