County Judge Mark Henry and the county’s 13 mayors came to an agreement Monday: all county residents would be told to stay at home.
The county will institute a stay-at-home order at 11:59 p.m Tuesday, officials announced Monday evening. The order will remain in effect until April 3. The order says nothing about how the government would enforce the provisions, however.
The order was signed by Henry, Galveston County Local Health Authority Philip Keiser and the mayors of every city in Galveston County. The leaders agreed to the order during a telephone conference Henry arranged Monday afternoon.
The order is meant to encourage county residents to limit their travel during a phase of the coronavirus pandemic when some health officials are predicting a soaring number of new cases, officials said.
Henry agreed to issue the order because it was recommended by the health authority, he said on Monday evening.
But while Henry signed and issued the order, he cast doubts about the forcefulness of the order.
“The local health authority asked that I do it and I did it in such a way that there are so many exceptions, most people will be excepted,” he said.
Under the county’s order, residents may only leave their homes to seek medical care, pick up essential items such as food — for either humans or pets — or household supplies, participate in solitary outdoor recreational activities or to work at an essential business.
Essential businesses include banks and retailers such as grocery stores, gas stations and convenience stores, in addition to healthcare providers, news organizations, restaurants providing takeout, delivery and drive-through services.
Essential infrastructure providers, such as local governments, trash collection and telecommunication systems providers also can remain on the job. Charitable organizations that provide help to those in need and child care providers also are exempted from the order.
Under the order, a manufacturing business that retools its operation to build ventilators can apply to become an essential business.
The order waives tolls at the San Luis Pass bridge at the West End of Galveston Island.
Galveston County’s order closely mirrors the one issued by Dallas County on Sunday afternoon.
The local order came down a little more than 24 hours after Gov. Greg Abbott declined to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order because of the coronavirus and deferred to local cities and counties to make their own decisions about shutdowns.
Other county leaders talked more forcefully about the seriousness of the order.
“We all agree that the county is at a tipping point,” Santa Fe Mayor Jason Tabor. “If we don’t do something now, the cases of COVID-19 will skyrocket.”
Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough called the order “serious stuff.”
“If you don’t have a reason to be outside your house, don’t go,” Yarbrough said.
The county order applies everywhere. Galveston or other cities could implement additional orders on top of the county’s rule, officials said.
Galveston is considering rules that would order short-term rental guests to leave the island, that would shut down game rooms and that would close fishing piers, Yarbrough said.
City leaders had discussed restricting access across the Galveston causeway, but on Monday didn’t anticipate such an order being drafted, Yarbrough said.
The agreement is one of the first examples of county leaders acting jointly in their response to the coronavirus pandemic.
At times over the past week, Henry deferred to the judgment of other local leaders — and the recommendations of the Galveston County Health District — to decide on what types of community precautions to take from the virus.
The result has been a patchwork of rules.
While Galveston and the mainland city of La Marque ordered a shutdown of bars and dining areas on March 17, other parts of the county didn’t go that far until forced to by an executive order by Abbott that went into effect on March 21.
The unified order was meant be an attempt to form “a single voice” for county residents. Yarbrough said he would rather be criticized for taking measures that were too strong than for not taking the crisis seriously enough.
Henry said he hoped the unified order would convince people who can stay inside during the crisis to do so.
The order does not include any language about enforcement or penalties.
“We’re hoping for voluntary compliance, and that’s the bottom line,” he said.
As of Monday, there were 18 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Galveston County, according to the health district.
Reporter Keri Heath contributed to this report.