Eads with chart

Denton County Judge Andy Eads shows a chart comparing projected numbers of coronavirus cases with and without protective measures during a news conference Tuesday at the Courthouse on the Square.

Denton County has issued a stay-at-home order that will go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, March 25.

The order means residents can leave their homes only to shop for food and other needs, while nonessential businesses must be closed.

Denton County and the city of Denton announced a weeklong stay-at-home mandate starting late Wednesday night to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The mandate will last for seven days unless ratified or extended by the county Commissioners Court, Denton County Judge Andy Eads said Tuesday. The move was announced jointly with the city of Denton during an afternoon news conference at the Courthouse on the Square. The city's ordinance is also in effect for seven days. 

Denton County Public Health confirmed 15 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the county’s total to 51.

Eads urged residents to stay home and limit their interactions because community spread of the new coronavirus has been confirmed in Denton County.

“Each individual has the responsibility to stay at home and [limit] their actions to the necessities of getting supplies, handling medical issues and, for some, going to work to keep essential businesses in operation,” Eads said.

The mandate follows Dallas County’s shelter-in-place order, which began Monday, and Collin and Tarrant counties’ “stay-at-home” mandates, also issued Tuesday.

Denton County’s mandate designates specific criteria for which businesses are considered essential.

“Essential businesses,” according to the mandate, include health care operations, such as dentists, health care suppliers, clinics, and veterinary care and welfare services for animals. Grocery stores and convenience stores are also allowed to keep their doors open. Elective medical procedures are not included in the mandate.

Without commonsense measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, such as staying home and practicing social distancing, Eads said Denton County hospitals and the Dallas-Fort Worth health care system risk becoming overwhelmed with coronavirus patients.

“We are asking people to reduce our impacts and the surge of anticipated cases,” he said. “Hospitals, the places that help us in our greatest hour of need, are now asking us to help them. We must ensure the health and safety of medical professionals and first responders, who are on the front lines working to help those when needed most.”

Denton Mayor Chris Watts, who issued an amended declaration ordering all residents to stay home, said immediate action was required once COVID-19 cases were confirmed at the Denton State Supported Living Center. The center, which now has six confirmed cases, houses more than 440 people with disabilities and employs more than 1,400 staff members.

Watts said Tuesday’s directive, though extreme, is imperative to ensure safety of the living center residents, employees and the community. Watts acknowledged that Denton-area hospitals would not be able to handle potential widespread infection at the state center, and that flattening the curve depends on the community.

“It’s going to depend on staying in our homes and only going out when it’s absolutely essential,” Watts said during Tuesday’s news conference. “That’s why we made sure that essential businesses stayed open, so that we can continue to stay in our homes as much as possible. If not, the hurt, pain and sickness is going to be prolonged.”

Matt Richardson, director of Denton County Public Health, said there are “a number of individuals” the county department is planning to test in the coming hours and days. Richardson said COVID-19 testing is available at area hospitals, but that facility testing will expand once supplies and clinical staff can be deployed.

With access to COVID-19 testing limited due to availability, he said frustration has been common.

“There’s frustration for patients and families and any part of our communities in the county,” he said. “There’s frustration from providers who do not have access to the supplies or testing capacity. There’s frustration in public health that we have not been able to activate that type of response. But we don’t know how many negative tests [the county has seen].”

Richardson said testing is provided in Denton County via local doctors, urgent care centers and hospitals.

With the stay-at-home mandate taking effect Wednesday night, residents outside of essential employees may be subjected to fines and penalties for disobeying the mandate, said Jody Gonzalez, Denton County Emergency Services coordinator. Gonzalez said enforcement includes a fine of up to $1,000, or up to 180 days in jail.

Gonzalez said that while the directive is authorized, officers will be looking for compliance before enforcement is implemented. He said officials will be contacting essential businesses to inform them about the mandate.

While Tuesday’s directive is an escalation from the county’s first disaster declaration on March 13, which restricted public gatherings to 250 people or fewer, Eads said local officials are hopeful but bracing for the worst.

“When you listen to the health care professionals, their statisticians and researchers that are modeling what’s happening in Seattle and New York City, and other outbreaks across America, I believe North Texas can do it right,” Eads said. “If we buckle down and make these sacrifices in a timely manner, and for the foreseeable future, we will have a more positive outcome and hopefully not have headlines like we see in Italy and around the world.”

RYAN HIGGS can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @ryanahiggs.

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