UPDATED: COVID-19 committee reveals phase-in plan | Local News

Autumn Owens news1@weatherforddemocrat.com

A COVID-19 committee that was formed by Parker County Judge Pat Deen at the beginning of April revealed a phase-in plan to the commissioners court Monday morning.

“First and foremost it’s a priority to maintain the health and safety of our residents and everything is driven by that with a phased-in approach in getting our economy going, which is important,” Deen said. “Today we have seven active cases with 140,000 people and information is power and we can’t make decisions without knowing how many are affected, how many are tested and now we have that data.”

The plan includes three phases — businesses, gatherings and returning to normal — but action on the plan wasn’t taken until the commissioners heard Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest press conference, which was set for Monday afternoon.

Parker County Economic Development Council Executive Director and committee member Patrick Lawler led the discussion, focusing on Phase 1, which is the reopening of businesses.

“We sat down for a three-and-a-half-week period and went through how do you do each phase of the plan. Then we got a little direction from the federal plan [and] the CDC guidelines that came out a couple of weeks ago where they separated everything into a three-phase plan. We tried to build a plan with an understanding that the governor would provide some local control mechanism back to Parker County, which would give the county commissioners court the authority to move forward on that plan.”

The committee includes Lawler and five Parker County city managers — David Miller, Springtown; Bill Funderburk, Aledo; Bryan Grimes, Willow Park; James Hotopp, Weatherford; and Sterling Naron, Hudson Oaks.

Lawler said the committee worked with the local chambers of commerce to send out surveys to businesses and spoke with business owners directly, which helped in the creation of the plan.

“Everything is based on how far we can get people away from each other and still maintain a business operation,” Lawler said. “Churches are probably the easiest one to deal with mainly because the state has given very specific direction. They have basically said it is a constitutional right for churches to operate and so if churches want to operate, we ask them to meet social distancing requirements, but they can legally operate today. We still highly encourage those services to stay at virtual methods, but if they want to figure out some method to have on-site services and meet those social distancing requirements, it is already allowed within the governor’s order today.”

Lawler then went over the plan for non-essential retail businesses that are not currently open.

“They can do pick-up, they can do delivery by mail, they can do delivery to a customer’s doorstep and customers may enter a business, but occupancy must be reduced in order to meet social distancing requirements. We’re not telling those businesses exactly what their occupancy number needs to be, we’re telling them to figure that out,” Lawler said. “You have six feet of distance between people, we would prefer you to have 10-feet, but figure out how that works within your business. Each business is going to be very different and trying to paint a broad stroke with a rule is extremely difficult to do. Retail businesses must establish cleaning procedures in accordance with the CDC and [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] guidelines.”

Lawler said the 10-foot preference can be removed from the retail portion and primarily just applies to restaurants, fitness and salons.

Lawler next went over the plan for salons.

“Interactions would still require the use of [personal protective equipment]. Obviously these are direct contact individuals. These services would be allowed on a one-on-one basis. Walk-ins are acceptable as long as a one-on-one interaction is maintained, so customers are encouraged to wait in their vehicles and not in a lobby, that way we don’t have any congregation that occurs within that business,” Lawler said. “In salons, this is where the 10 feet comes in, the work stations must be spaced to allow 10 feet between those stations and that’s just to make sure we’re out of the 6 feet. Most work stations are probably at that 10 feet now. We just want to make sure we’re not packing them in like sardines.”

Lawler then addressed gyms, which will be allowed to open, and personal training.

“Personal training is allowed by an appointment, one-on-one or one-on-one family basis, and can be at home or on-site. Instructor-led group fitness studios may open and hold classes on an appointment schedule basis provided social distancing, at least 10-feet between participants. If you’re in a fitness class, there’s a lot of movement going on, people are spreading out, so we felt that 10 feet was appropriate,” Lawler said. “Gyms are encouraged to work with members through appointments and scheduling and must limit occupancy to provide social distancing for all customers. Training equipment and workout stations must meet social distancing requirements, thus, some machines and workout areas must be closed to maintain proper social distancing. You must have employees to make sure all that equipment is sanitized between uses.”

Restaurants were an area that the committee spent the most time on to gain details on all operations, Lawler said.

“We looked at this specifically from a separation of tables, so we want table separation to be 10 feet apart. They need to remove all community items such as ketchup, salt and pepper, paper towels, all those types of things that multiple parties would touch at a table. All staff must wear appropriate PPE, all waiting areas must adhere to a 6-foot social distancing requirement and we do encourage that people wait in their vehicles and [restaurants] set up a system for people to be able to wait in their vehicles,” Lawler said. “Use of outdoor patio seating is encouraged and that is a direct reflection of CDC guidance on large air-flow areas. The CDC has said that higher air-flow would be better for this, so we’re encouraging that patio seating because you’re going to have constant air flow.”

According to the plan, all bar-top seating must be closed and there should be no groups of more than 10 people.

“When drinks are made at a bar, it’s very difficult to separate an individual from a drink-making area that’s within 6 feet. So from a safety standpoint in Phase 1, those bar tops should remain closed,” Lawler said. “All groups should be less than 10 people, so we should have no parties of more than 10 sitting at tables in restaurants. We did not put ‘must’ on that because there’s a big belief in individual rights and it could be a family that’s maybe a little more than 10, but what we’re trying to prevent is a birthday party having 25 people in a patio room, hanging out and partying together.”

Lawler said since Parker County doesn’t have many standalone bars, it wasn’t a huge topic.

“It impacts very few facilities, so just to be clear it’s in the plan because it needs to be in the plan, but it just really has very little impact. It’s almost identical to restaurants. All groups should be less than 10 people, use of patio is encouraged, you need to have 6-foot social distancing between people. All staff must wear appropriate PPE and then all community items should be taken off the tables,” Lawler said. “All bar top seating should be closed. The bars that we do have in town, a lot of them have significant patio areas — outdoor entertainment space — so they will probably have an easier time meeting those social distancing guidelines than some of our restaurants do.”

Lawler next went over entertainment businesses, saying that movie theaters will remain closed.

“Movie theaters won’t be able to get actual films until late June or early July so we’re not being detrimental to a business model here by keeping theaters closed at this point. We have two theaters in Parker County and both of them are owned by the same family and we’ve had communications with that family and they basically informed us that they don’t think they’re going to get a new-run movie until the first week of July,” Lawler said. “Entertainment facilities in general, we do have some social distancing guidelines for those businesses as well. All customers must maintain that social distancing and occupancy must be adjusted to provide that proper social distancing. Occupancy of the facility must be strictly enforced by facility staff, because you have a lot of kids and families there. All arcade and bowling public areas must be cleaned and sanitized between uses and all groups should be less than 10 people. Our local bowling alley here in Weatherford has a lot of distance between lanes, you could have every other lane open safely and they can operate as a business.”

Lawler said they can go over the next phase, gatherings, which would include multiple steps when they get to that point in following the federal plan.

“Early on you’re probably going to see a recommendation for things like outdoor youth sports. That’s a smaller group of individuals, you don’t have thousands of people there and then you go to the far phase of that, which would be large public gatherings,” Lawler said. “Gatherings in Phase 2, it’s going to take multiple steps. So you may see the first part of that earlier from us and then you may see the second part later. That’s what the federal plan takes on in Phase 2, which is gatherings.”

Phase 3 is going back to normal, which Lawler said won’t happen until a vaccine or therapies have been proven to work against COVID-19.

“The federal plan specifically says you get into a Phase 3 setup when you have one of two things — you either have a vaccine where you can safely vaccinate people, or you have therapies that are proven to work and reduce the overall infection or death rate of COVID-19,” Lawler said. “There are therapies that are actively being tested currently and I think once the CDC gives a clear guideline on a therapy that works and is proven, then you would move into Phase 3 much quicker than you would otherwise. But I think we’re going to be able to return some form of normalcy back to people’s lives before we get to Phase 3, that’s our hope.”

Weatherford City Manager James Hotopp said a lot of the businesses that are open are already practicing the safety guidelines.

“There are several businesses that have been deemed essential and they’re already self-regulating. They’ve put in place reasonable safety precautions not only to protect the customers, but their employees as well. We’ve been very fortunate in the fact that we haven’t seen quite the number of cases that other areas have seen, so it’s appropriate now to start looking at some ways to open our businesses up,” Hotopp said. “We all know for the businesses that if they don’t put in place reasonable safety precautions, their customers aren’t going to come back, they’re not going to feel safe there and I think that’s what all of our businesses face. Our business community is extremely intelligent and they know what they need to do in order to create a safe environment for their employees and customers.”

Following the Phase 1 guideline presented at commissioners court, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a new executive order Monday afternoon in regard to reopening businesses, Phase 1, in Texas.

“Our goal, of course, is to get Texans back to work and that is what today is all about. My executive order to stay at home that was issued last month was set to expire on April 30. That executive order has done its job to slow the growth of COVID-19 and I will let it expire as scheduled,” Abbott said. “With my new executive order, all retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls can reopen May 1. I am limiting occupancy to no more than 25 percent. This is a proven business strategy. The extent to which this order opens up businesses in Texas supersedes all local orders.”

Additionally, Abbott said all museums and libraries can also open under the same 25 percent occupancy and all hospitals must reserve 15 percent occupancy for COVID-19 patients. Abbott said his order also allows for outdoor sports as long as it involves no more than four participants playing together at one time —for example, golf or tennis.

Abbott said if Phase 1 of his order has proven to work, the second phase will expand business occupancy to 50 percent as early as May 18.

However, Abbott said for counties that have five or less COVID-19 cases as well as some other conditions can increase their capacity to 50 percent.

“A different standard can apply to counties with five or fewer cases of COVID-19. This would include almost half of the counties in the state of Texas. For those counties, they must comply with all of the safety standards outlined by the doctors, but for all business activity that have been limited to a 25 percent capacity, in the counties with five or fewer COVID-19 cases, they can increase their capacity to 50 percent,” Abbott said. “There are still some conditions that must be met for the county to qualify.”

But Abbott said barber shops and hair salons, bars and gyms will remain closed after doctors’ advised they were still not safe enough to open at this time.

Abbott said a full manual will be available online for government entities to review all aspects of his new executive order.

Lawler recommended the committee review Abbott’s order in full.

“The reality is we need some time. We need some time to go back and look at what the governor has presented,” Lawler said. “What we don’t know in Phase 2 is where hair salons, bars and gyms fall within that Phase 2 and we don’t know within that Phase 2 plan where he has sports, outdoor sports and recreation.”

The commissioners did not take action on the county phase-in plan and Abbott’s order will go into effect until May 1.

As of press time, Parker County currently has seven active COVID-19 cases and 11 pending cases.

The commissioners are expected to meet at 9 a.m. on Thursday.

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