The COVID-19 pandemic has launched us all into a confusing and scary time. Both city of Denton and Denton County officials are fielding questions about their emergency orders meant to limit the spread of the virus among us.
Here are answers to five big-picture questions that should help guide your decision-making as we enter another week under the health emergency orders.
What does ‘stay at home’ mean?
That means you stay home except to get groceries, go to the doctor and go to work, if your job is deemed critical. You are allowed a handful of other essential activities, such as exercise. So you can walk the dog or go for a jog or bike ride, as long as you take care to stay six feet away from anyone else. In other words, you can take the kids for a walk, but you can’t send them to the neighborhood playground — it’s closed anyways.
You can assist a relative with essential needs. You can repair a plumbing leak. The city and county give clear guidance on what’s considered an essential activity in their orders. Since you could face a hefty fine or jail time if you violate the order, don’t depend on something you read on social media. Read the orders, and if you still aren’t sure, check the city’s and the county’s FAQs before you go.
If you are under quarantine — and that now includes travelers returning from hot spots in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and New Orleans under the governor’s latest orders — you cannot leave your home at all for two weeks. Others who are quarantined because they have been in contact with someone who has the virus are similarly required to stay inside until they are released by their doctor.
The rule of thumb is this: When in doubt, stay home. You’ll help save lives.
What is an essential and nonessential business?
This distinction comes from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Denton County adopted the distinctions wholesale as part of its emergency declaration, which ordered hundreds of nonessential businesses to close temporarily. Grocery stores, medical offices, gas stations and their suppliers fit the category of an essential business. Many government employees and journalists are also considered essential workers.
Some employees of essential businesses have documentation from their employer to carry with them as they travel to and from work as proof. The city and county do not require this paperwork, nor are they issuing such paperwork themselves.
Because violating the order comes with a hefty fine and possible jail time, read the order before deciding whether yours is an essential business. Denton County Judge Andy Eads had this simple advice for businesses that are unsure whether they are essential: Close.
What economic protections do I have?
Federal, state and local officials have adopted scores of measures meant to keep financial dominoes from falling — from measures that stop the clock to actual cash in your hands.
If everyone has a chance to pay their bills, the economy may be able to avoid a cascade of failures like the Great Recession in 2008, when enough homeowners defaulted on mortgages to bring the finance industry to its knees worldwide and leave some banks on the brink of insolvency.
For example, the Federal Housing Administration has stopped the clock for mortgage defaults for a month. And the Texas Supreme Court has stopped the clock for renters to be evicted for nonpayment for a month. Atmos Energy and the city of Denton suspended cutoffs for utilities for a month. This week, the Public Utilities Commission also suspended utility cutoffs for customers of investor-owned utilities, although those customers will all pay a small extra fee to cover the protection for everyone.
For individuals who have lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 crisis, Texas has waived some rules in order to get unemployment benefits into people’s hands as quickly as possible. And those workers who don’t traditionally qualify for unemployment — independent contractors and the self-employed — will get help in a new federal relief package that provides unemployment benefits. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act expands unemployment insurance to $600 weekly and an additional 13 weeks beyond the state’s 26 weeks.
The Small Business Administration is offering loans to affected businesses. In addition, Texas Woman’s University has $1 million in grants for woman-owned businesses affected by the crisis.
The Texas Workforce Commission also relaxed its requirements to support individuals who need child care in order to return to work.
In addition, the CARES Act should put $1,200 into the hands of low- and middle-income Denton County taxpayers to help pay those bills. Within the next several weeks, the federal government will issue tax rebates of $1,200 to individuals making under $75,000 (or $2,400 to a married couple making $150,000 or less).
How long is this ‘stay at home’ order going to last?
That’s unclear. The Denton County Commissioners Court and the Denton City Council are listening to emergency managers and public health officials, who have only recently been able to test more fully for COVID-19, including cases at locally known hot spots, such as the Denton State Supported Living Center. Confirmed cases rose countywide from one to 137 in a week’s time. Nearly one-third of those cases emanated from the center, with 37 residents and two staff members among the positives as of Friday. Another resident and another staffer were among Saturday’s confirmed cases, which brought the county total to 148.
After Denton County Judge Andy Eads issued his initial order, the County Commissioners Court extended on Friday the “stay at home” order to March 31. Similarly, the City Council on Tuesday could extend Denton’s order to that date, or some other date. (Denton’s order that effectively closed the hospitality industry runs through April 30.)
The county judge and area mayors are the chief executives for local government and, as such, are limited in their emergency powers. They can sign orders that last a week. For those orders to go longer, the full court or council must approve.
Will it really be over when ‘stay at home’ orders are lifted?
The health threat will likely loom for months.
Even after “stay at home” orders are allowed to expire, health experts recommend people keep these newly adopted practices, including staying home from work when we’re sick, maintaining a healthy distance from one another, washing our hands thoroughly, and stocking freezers and pantries with a week’s worth of groceries and cleaning supplies.
In addition, a vaccine is at least 12-18 months away or more, health experts say. More “stay at home” orders could be in the offing, depending on how the virus mutates and travels. Doctors and nurses need to identify and isolate patients quickly, and public health officials need to trace and quarantine each patient’s contacts to keep from again overwhelming the health system and the economy.