As the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread across the state of Texas on Friday, Kerrville leaders were prepping for more disruptions of everyday life, including closing Peterson Regional Medical Center to all visitors.
It was a dramatic day locally, especially as local restaurants and bars prepped during the day for a new way of doing business, but the emergency facing the Hill Country led city leaders to issue a new disaster declaration to combat the coronavirus locally. Unlike the city’s previous seven-day declaration, this one will last indefinitely.
"Decisions that I would make in this or another emergency is in consultation with folks who are on the ground, (familiar) with the issues, and have experience with different parts of this," said Kerrville Mayor Bill Blackburn, who shares significant decision-making power with Kerr County Judge Rob Kelly.
The declaration was unanimously approved by the city council. In the declaration, City Manager Mark McDaniel was given broad authority to close city facilities, request federal assistance, accept supplies or donations from nonprofits, terminate any event that may cause risk to the public and suspend debt, disconnection and fees related to provision of utility services.
The state of disaster will last until the city council explicitly votes to lift it.
At Peterson Regional Medical Center, officials tamped down rumors of infections, but closed off visitors to the hospital. That decision was made in anticipation of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shutting off visitors to nursing homes and are facilities.
While there are no infections in Kerrville, Peterson Health CEO Cory Edmonson made a grim prediction about what the community is facing.
“We’re just waiting for the first person to turn out positive,” Edmondson said. “Kerrville’s going to get it, Kerr County’s going to have the positive patient show up, it’s just a matter of time. We’re doing our due diligence to mitigate and be judicious in all the things we do at the hospital with our staff; in limiting visitations to try to eliminate the spread. So when the governor and president are telling you to do social distancing and lock things down, it’s serious business.”
That thinking led Peterson officials to increase the number of intensive care unit beds from 12 to 14. One of the major challenges for hospital officials worldwide has been the impact on the ICU.
“We’re being proactive and putting all plans in place,” Edmonson said. “We’re ahead of the curve in our preparation. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying to think of everything.”
There are ongoing tests for the virus in Kerrville, some being conducted in local doctor’s offices, but the challenge for health officials here is that the tests have to be sent to out-of-the area testing facilities. In turn, it could take 48 hours or longer to determine a positive test.
Edmonson said he didn’t know how many had been tested at this point for the virus. In most cases, doctors will only test for coronavirus if they have ruled out other illnesses and if the patient is clearly showing signs of coronavirus infection.
In Texas, there have been more than 5,000 people tested for the virus and 194 have been infected, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Of those 194, five have already died. The state’s infection numbers actually lag behind some counties, including Dallas County, which counts a much higher number of infections than the state.
At the turn of midnight on Friday, bars across the Hill Country were closed and restaurants operating on Saturday were ordered to close their dining rooms. Many business owners were scrambling to set up curbside pickup and other delivery options for their customers.
During the city council’s 10 a.m. meeting on Friday, it was decided to close buildings and make changes to the city’s operations.
CITY BUILDINGS CLOSED TO PUBLIC
Instead, operations will be done digitally, through drive-thrus, drop boxes and similar processes, McDaniel said.
"The city will not be closing; we will continue to provide services, but we'll be doing it in a different way," McDaniel said, adding that the city will not be cutting any utility services.
DIGITAL CITY COUNCIL MEETINGS
City council meetings are no longer open for residents to physically attend, but the city is arranging for digital, interactive meetings, McDaniel said.
Usually, Kerrville City Council meetings are filmed live. The city will have an email and phone number to call so that residents can still make public comments during meetings.
For planned comments submitted before the meeting, email email@example.com by 5:45 p.m. the day of the meeting.
For comments during the meeting, use the phone. The phone numbers for the meetings are both toll free at 877-853-5247 or 888-788-0099. After dialing, a voice will say, "Welcome to Zoom, enter meeting ID, followed by a pound sign." The meeting ID number is 527143502.
The next city council meeting is March 24 at 6 p.m. and will be available to watch at kerrvilletx.gov.
BOARD CLOSURES AND DEVELOPMENT
All boards are suspended except for the Planning and Zoning Commission, which will only meet to accommodate state imposed deadlines.
"Unless there is something in state law that requires the Planning and Zoning Commission to meet, they will not meet," said City Attorney Mike Hayes.
The city will not be accepting development applications at this time.
The COVID-19 outbreak is a rapidly changing situation. If there are any changes to the mayor's declaration, city council can reconvene to vote for the change. If it passes, the newly changed declaration would be effective for seven days.
All in all, the city is working to be as communicative as possible, said Kerrville Fire Department Chief Dannie Smith.
"It's been proven that the biggest failure in disaster is a lack of communication and collaboration," Smith said. "Most successes are a result of good communication and collaboration. That's the best we can do at this point."
Council also talked about giving up their pay so that it can go towards something to add relief for the residents. McDaniel said this is possible. No action on the matter was taken, but may be in the future.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The full declaration is available at kerrvilletx.gov/DocumentCenter/View/35318/Disaster-Declaration_031620-EXECUTED-DRAFT-Revised-32020?bidId=.
For more information about the details, Hayes recommends emailing city council members. Their emails are as follows:
Mayor Bill Blackburn: firstname.lastname@example.org
Place 1 Gary Cochrane: Gary.Cochrane@kerrvilletx.gov
Place 2 Kim Clarkson: Kim.Clarkson@kerrvilletx.gov
Place 3 Judy Eychner: email@example.com
Place 4 Delayne Sigerman: firstname.lastname@example.org