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Texas Governor loosens restrictions on religious functions, clarifies essential services

Drone imagery by Jerry Jordan/SETINVESTIGATES

By Jerry Jordan, Editor

ORANGE, TX – Changes are being implemented to executive orders regarding COVID-19 (Coronavirus) mitigation that will allow citizens to attend worship services and keep critical infrastructure services like government entities in the state, grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations, restaurants and other businesses open.

The most recent order, GA-14 enacted March 31 by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, states, “This Executive Order does not prohibit people from accessing essential services or engaging in essential daily activities, such as going to the grocery store or gas station, providing or obtaining other essential services, hunting or fishing, or engaging in physical activity like jogging or bicycling, so long as the necessary precautions are maintained to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and to minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household. The order also includes exemptions for religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship. All critical infrastructure will remain operational, and government entities and businesses will continue providing essential services.”

The governor’s office also helped clear up what are considered “essential services” by including a web link for clarification –

“Let me start off by expressing my gratitude to all of our fellow Texans for your tremendous efforts that you have made over the past few weeks to slow the spread of the Coronavirus,” Abbott said, during the Tuesday press conference. “By staying at home, by reducing personal interactions, you are saving lives and you are improving the health of people across our entire state.

Abbott said one of the things the state is doing in continuing to increase the number of tests being given to find as many people as possible who are suffering from the virus. So far, the state has tested 42,922 people for COVID-19 and of that number, less than 10-percent (3,901) have returned as being positive. Additionally, there have been only 57 deaths. Worldwide, there are 859,556 positive cases with 189,035 positive cases in the United States. There have been 3,900 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the United States, which equates to an approximate 2-percent mortality rate. However, with more people recovering and being tested, that percent is expected to decrease. So far, the United States is reporting 7,096 people have recovered, which is about four percent of those who have tested positive, according to the Coronavirus/COVID-19 database at Johns Hopkins University.

Abbott said there are 122 of 254 counties in Texas with, at least, one COVID-19 patient and across the state 97.6 percent of all hospital beds are still free to take COVID-19 patients, should there be a need.

“It still remains true that less than 10-percent of the people who are tested test positive for COVID-19,” Abbott said. “And just over 11-percent of those who test positive need to go to the hospital.”

Abbot said most of the positive cases are from before measures were taken to implement social distancing and restrict interactions with others across the state. He said one thing “that is clear” is that “distancing practices” are working and there are fewer people on in public who can transmit COVID-19 from one person to another.

“But as President (Donald) Trump said just two days ago, ‘Now, is not the time to let up in these distancing efforts. Now, is the time instead to redouble our efforts, to make sure we do more ride ourselves of the Coronavirus.’”

Abbott said as President Trump did for the United States, he is doing for the state of Texas and is extending social distancing requirements until April 30. His hope is that the extension will helps save more lives and further reduce the spread of COVID-19. However, he said his order still allows people to go to the grocery store, buy gasoline and get physical exercise outdoors.

“Essential activity includes any activity to access essential services like, going a grocery store, going to a bank, going to a gas station, getting supplies from a hardware store, importantly, it includes maintaining physical activity which is so important to at this particular time – activities like jogging or biking or hunting and fishing are permissible, so long as provisions are maintained to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and to minimize in-person contact with others.

“Also, importantly, religious activity may continue but should either be conducted by remote services or, if conducted in-person, should be conducted to be consistent with the guidelines of the President and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) that describe appropriate social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Locally, it is expected that the coalition of six county judges from Jefferson, Hardin, Orange, Tyler, Jasper and Newton counties, will amend their “Stay Home-Work Safe” orders on Wednesday to be in line with what Governor Abbott ordered in GA-14.

RELATED STORY: In Louisiana, a pastor was charged with a criminal misdemeanor for violating that state’s social distancing orders by holding church services. He was given a summons and read his rights as he stood in the pulpit of his church by the local police chief but he was not taken into custody.

Earlier this week, Abbott implemented travel restrictions and expanded on his GA-11 order to apply to anyone arriving in Texas by air from New Orleans, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, Detroit and anywhere in California and Washington. Additionally, he expanded the order to include anyone traveling by car to Texas from Louisiana and set-up enforcement by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The order was to go into effect with regard to stopping cars from Louisiana and having those travelers fill out paperwork requiring them to quarantine for 14-days but, so far, enforcement has been essentially nonexistent on Interstate 10 in Orange. For two days, DPS troopers have stationed their vehicles along I-10 but no one has been observed being questioned by the troopers.

“Every person who enters the State of Texas through roadways from Louisiana, or from any other state as may be proclaimed hereafter, shall be subject to mandatory self-quarantine for a period of 14 days from the time of entry into Texas or the duration of the person’s presence in Texas, whichever is shorter,” states GA-11. “This order to self-quarantine shall not apply to people traveling in connection with commercial activity, military service, emergency response, health response, or critical-infrastructure functions, as may be determined by the Texas Division of Emergency Management.  Each person covered by this order to self-quarantine shall be responsible for all associated costs, including transportation, lodging, food, and medical care.

“The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) shall enforce this executive order along the Texas-Louisiana border.  Using a form to be prescribed by DPS, each covered person shall designate a quarantine location in Texas, such as a residence or a hotel, and provide a full name, date of birth, home address, telephone number, and driver license or passport information.  DPS Troopers, or other approved peace officers, will collect a completed form from a covered person and verify it against the person’s driver license or passport.  Providing false information on this form is a criminal offense under Section 37.10 of the Texas Penal Code.”

A source at DPS said the agency is still working out the logistics of how to enforce the order.

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