Midway through a news conference where executives were describing hospitals' herculean efforts to cope with a staggering increase in COVID-19 cases in San Antonio and Bexar County, the governor of Texas dropped a proclamation.
Gov. Greg Abbott ordered Texans in most counties to wear face coverings in public and gave mayors and county judges the ability to impose restrictions on outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people. It was what local leaders had been imploring him to do for weeks, as COVID-19 cases spiraled out of control in Texas' urban areas.
"It's about time," said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg. "We'll count this one as a good step that the governor has taken." (scroll down to watch the full news conference)
Abbott, who earlier this year prohibited local governments from punishing people for not wearing masks, this time included enforcement penalties. After a written warning for the first infraction, localities can punish second and subsequent violations with fines of up to $250. The order, linked here prohibits jailing mask offenders and goes into effect at noon, July 3.
The message came on the eve of the Independence Day weekend, as local leaders and health officials are anxious to avoid repeating the fallout from Memorial Day weekend, when people flocked to public places as stay-at-home orders were lifted.
"The current surge in cases began almost exactly 14 days after the Memorial Day Weekend," Nirenberg said to open the news conference. On Memorial Day in San Antonio, 79 COVID-19 patients were in Bexar County hospitals. Today, there are 1,000, he said. "We cannot withstand a similar surge two weeks after the Fourth of July." (See the latest COVID-19 data here.)
To further limit gatherings where COVID-19 could spread, Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff ordered all city and county parks closed from Thursday, July 2 at 11:59 p.m. until Monday, July 6 at 5 a.m.
Hospital executives said they are expanding ICU capacity, but will soon be overwhelmed if cases keep rising at this rate.
Here are some of their comments:
Dr. Ian Thompson, CEO of Christus Santa Rosa Hospital Medical Center: "The numbers are staggering, disease is breathtaking." The number of patients "they are going to overwhelm us... What you do today will determine what happens two weeks from now, whether you're in the emergency room with no beds in the inn.
"Let's call this Independence Day, a day of independence against this disease...If you love your country, you will wear a mask and you will do with the mayor and the judge have told you to do."
Allen Harrison, President and CEO of Methodist Healthcare System: "We have more than quadrupled (the number of patients) in exactly two weeks. That's unsustainable.
"Some people will tell you it's just like the flu. Except that it's 50 times more likely to kill you than the flu is. Fifty times the death rate of the flu."
George Hernandez, CEO of University Health System: "We have over 9,000 healthcare workers at UHS. They are there for you, but they need you to back them up by not getting sick...
Protect yourself, your family, your friends and neighbors. Let our humanity work for us, not against us."
Matthew Stone, CEO of Baptist Health System: "Please wear mask - do it for the 1,000 nurses, do it for the physicians, the housekeepers ... keep us safe so we can keep you safe."