Comal County joined the city of New Braunfels in issuing a mandatory Stay Home/Be Safe order for all county areas, its stiffest measure yet to prevent spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The order closes all nonessential businesses, including river outfitters and short-term campgrounds at 12:01 a.m. Friday through 11:59 p.m. Thursday, April 30.
“After monitoring compliance with the governor’s executive order this week, we realized Comal County needed a clearer order that applied more specifically to our community,” County Judge Sherman Krause said. “The vast majority of local residents and businesses have been complying with efforts to protect public health, and this order is designed to make sure everyone else comes into compliance.”
Local, statewide cases, deaths
Guadalupe County, which has 23 virus cases, issued a “Stay at Home” order mandating residents remain at home during the same times. Comal County on Friday confirmed three additional virus cases for a total of 18, a 50% increase in cases in the past two days.
All three are New Braunfels residents — one under 18, another in their 40s and one in their 50s — and all now self-quarantined. The county said one case was community spread — the second such case reported in the county — and two others resulted “from close contact with someone who had already tested positive.”
On Friday morning the county’s public health office reported 199 tests of residents, with 18 testing positive, 124 negative and 57 results pending. Two residents who died March 26 were among the positives; a sixth patient has recovered and released from home isolation.
The Texas Department of State Health Services reported jumps in total coronavirus-related cases and deaths, which have quadrupled since last week. DSHS reported statewide fatalities rose to 90 on Friday, 20 more than reported Thursday. Of 50,679 tests, 5,330 were confirmed cases – including 661 new cases reported Thursday.
County, city overlap on parks, services
The county’s mandate didn’t close parks and recreation access points during the Easter holiday weekend, only the non-essential businesses defined as providing “lake- or river-related services,” Krause said. “Businesses that function as housing for long-term campers or provide fishing access are considered essential by the state and are therefore exempt from Comal County’s order, as well,” he said.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest executive order, issued Wednesday, allows some churches to reopen and not specifically mentioned in the county order, which encompasses unincorporated as well as incorporated county areas.
“We have not yet heard of any churches that are holding services, however the governor’s order said those without remote capabilities may hold them as long as they observe social distancing,” New Braunfels City Manager Robert Camareno said, hours before the county issued its latest order. “I’m concerned about that and would encourage a church against doing that.”
Camareno said the city was definitely closing parks areas Easter weekend, though an official release stating so, and reacting to the latest county measures, was not available at press time.
Drive-thru testing starting
City and county officials confirmed that drive-thru testing of patients referred by doctors and other medical providers will begin Monday. Neither would reveal the location, referring media inquiries to New Braunfels and specialist Judith Thompson, who didn’t immediately return phone messages on Friday.
Both Camareno and Paul Anthony, county public information officer, said the city and county are playing support roles by providing first responders and equipment used to process the swabs used in the testing.
About 30 percent of the city’s 813 employees are working from home, Camareno said, excepting solid waste and police, fire personnel.
“We are continuing to provide essential services to our community and have implemented a number of protocols across a number of departments. We are checking the temperature of staff coming in, and ask them a few questions to (ensure) they don’t have (virus) symptoms.”
City, county enforcement
The city and county will begin stricter enforcement of COVID-19 social distancing measures.
“We’ve not yet had to issue citations,” Camareno said. “We are consistently doing enforcement, where we go in and provide education, and we’re mostly getting compliance. And we’re also responding to calls from people reporting (scofflaws).”
Camareno said 42 businesses and six individuals were accused of non-compliance with virus directives in more than 800 calls placed to the city’s COVID-19 hotline.
The county’s COVID-19 Task Force began stepping up enforcement of non-essential business operations and clamping down on residents exceeding gathering limits on Friday.
“Just in my neighborhood I’ve seen a tremendous lack of social distancing,” Precinct 1 Commissioner Donna Eccleston said Thursday on throngs reported at boat ramps near her Canyon Lake home. “This is something that is of great concern to everybody in the county at this point and — I’m hoping everyone will be responsible.”
Krause said he met with the sheriff, district attorney and emergency management coordinator to discuss “what the governor’s order means to our community. It included two things that are very important to us.
“There are some businesses and community members that are not following the provisions in the governor’s previous orders regarding social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our county,” he said. “The other is that local officials can enforce that order.
“We talked about how (enforcement) would look, and the sheriff has put together a task force to enforce the provisions contained in the governor’s order.”
Sheriff Mark Reynolds said his Directed Deployment Unit, usually assigned to narcotics and gang activity, has been reassigned to enforce directives in the governor’s order. He said it will include some DARE officers but not Comal ISD school resource deputies, currently helping with meals and other duties at their assigned campuses.
Krause reiterated why the county has mandated compliance.
“We have reluctantly undertaken this next step because the health and safety of Comal County residents comes first, and we want to be as clear as possible,” he said. “Limiting our social interaction is the best way to slow or stop the spread of the coronavirus.”
Krause said enforcement will begin with warnings, with subsequent violations subject to criminal penalties. As outlined in the governor’s order they amount to Class B misdemeanors punishable by up to 180 days in jail and fines of up to $1,000.
Reynolds, who noted an uptick in family violence calls, commented on social media posts from those who don’t seem to get the social distancing message.
“As the judge said, everyone is emotionally tired and patience is wearing thin. We want to make sure we keep up that visibility — especially after seeing some social media posts,” he said. “All we want people to do is to stop this spread.
“The people who can’t comply with the terms in this order are just making things more difficult. We don’t want to take people’s rights away — we want everyone to be out and about. “But that’s not going to happen until we can get this behind us.”