The Tarrant County Commissioners Court approved an extension to its COVID-19 disaster declaration Tuesday to Feb. 28, effectively extending Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley's mask mandate for businesses until the same day.
The extension comes amid rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations right before the holiday season.
"The last couple of weeks have been really, really rough," Tarrant County Public Health Director Vinny Taneja said to the court Tuesday.
Tarrant County Public Health has announced more than 11,000 new cases of the virus in the last seven days, including another 1,710 on Tuesday.
"The first 10,000 cases took 107 days," Tarrant County Public Health director Vinny Taneja said. "The last 10,000 cases came in just seven days."
The mask mandate was first put into place in June. Judge Whitley reminded people Tuesday, it applies to businesses.
"It doesn’t pertain to us individuals who are out and about. It only pertains to businesses and their owners," Whitley said. "I want to stay focused on Tarrant County. I want to focused on those folks who I respect and trust and who know really don’t to have a dollar in the game. I want to talk to the CEO’s. I want to talk with the cities."
For weeks, across the county, there has been a push to encourage citizens to act responsibly during the holiday season to lessen the spread of COVID-19. As infections continue to rise, county health leaders have called on everyone to avoid non-essential travel and large gatherings, especially with the Thanksgiving holiday looming.
The biggest concern is for a potential post-holiday spike when the county has already seen a record-setting number of cases.
Taneja said he recognizes the idea of Zooming with families instead of big gatherings is "very awkward," but stressed it’s the safest option. Taneja said there are only about 36 ICU beds available in all of the hospitals in Tarrant County as of Tuesday.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 16% of all of the patients in Tarrant County hospitals are COVID-19 patients.
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The county no longer has the authority to order a shutdown, only Gov. Greg Abbott (R) can do that. Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley has said he does not want to see that happen.
At the commissioners meeting Tuesday, more than 60 people participated in the public comment portion. Fort Worth restauranteur Jon Bonnell, owner of Bonell Restaurant Group, said he "informally and unofficially" speaking for independent restaurants in the city. Though the county cannot force businesses such as restaurants back to curbside and to-go only, Bonnell stressed there is concern amongst the industry.
"I fired 330 people on March 18. We’ve gotten just over half of them back. I am asking, begging you do not shut us down and send everyone back home again. A lot my colleagues will not make it through this if you decide it’s time to go home and just do to-go food only," Bonnell said. "I understand that this is not a hoax, that this is some disease that was not made up for political reasons. I can name 11 people who died from it. I’ve had it. I’ve given my own plasma, because I’ve got the antibodies. I get the seriousness of this, but it’s not time to take away an entire industry because of it."
An extension to the disaster declaration allowing Judge Whitley to extend the mask mandate did not come without criticism.
"You need to vote to remove the shackles that you have placed on the citizens of this county. We’re not your slaves to be told with whom we can congregate, how close we can be close to others," one man told commissioners Tuesday.
Whitley said in order for the mandate to be lifted, there was need to a "substantial lowering of positive cases for an extended period time".
"I think we’re very close to 100,000 positive cases in Tarrant County. That’s less than 5% of the population. I understand that, but a lot of people who are up here arguing particular situations are a whole lot less than the 5%, but I’m not going to ignore them anymore than the five percent," he said.