Gov. Greg Abbott extended Texas’ disaster declaration for COVID-19 Saturday, on the same day the state opened Houston’s largest testing center yet at Minute Maid Park.
As many as 2,000 people per day can walk or drive to the ballpark for a free COVID-19 saliva tests. The Texas Department of Emergency Management and Houston Astros teamed up to launch the site, which is open daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Residents do not need to prove they have a healthcare provider or citizenship, Mayor Sylvester Turner said after touring the site Saturday. They also do not need an appointment.
“We’re trying to make it where you don’t have any excuse not to get tested,” Turner said.
The opening comes as the virus continues to spread rampantly through Houston and the greater region. Houston officials gathered Saturday for the funeral of firefighter Jerry Pacheco, the second Houston firefighter to die with the virus.
The mayor said the positivity rate — the ratio of people whose tests return positive — remains dangerously high. As of Monday, it was 17.6 percent. The city has set a goal of driving that down below 5 percent by the end of August.
It has launched a “Better Together” campaign and sent canvassers into hard-hit neighborhoods to give residents in those areas direct information about the virus.
One such team went to Southwest Houston and the Sharpstown area Saturday, where positivity rates have spiked, especially among Hispanic communities. The Health Department said canvassers contacted residents in 981 units.
Turner announced the city had 746 newly confirmed cases of the virus Saturday, along with six more deaths, including five Hispanic residents and one Black man in his 30s, who had no underlying health conditions.
That brings the city’s running toll to 54,050 cases and 549 deaths.
The governor’s declaration extension gives the state and counties more flexibility to combat the virus by allowing them to skirt laws or regulations that would hinder their response. Abbott initially declared a disaster in March and has extended it every month since then.
“I urge Texans to remain vigilant in our fight against this virus,” Abbott said. “Everyone must do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19 by wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and washing your hands frequently and thoroughly. We will overcome this challenge by working together.”
The capacity at Minute Maid can accommodate twice as many people as Houston’s two “mega” testing sites at Butler and Delmar stadiums, which Turner has warned have showed lower demand.
Those sites, which provide nasal swabs, can accommodate 1,000 people per day, but their attendance this week dropped to below 200 people in recent weeks. On one day in late July, just 86 people were tested at Butler Stadium.
“Better to know than not to know,” Turner said.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, who accompanied the mayor at the site Saturday, said Minute Maid’s capacity could prove especially helpful to essentials workers downtown.
“We don’t take this lightly and we’re still in the hot spot,” she said.