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Major U.S. cities struggle to keep residents compliant as virus surges

As the Fourth of July approaches, coronavirus cases are rising across the country, with businesses and public spaces again closing down as a result. Where does the U.S. stand in terms of managing this public health crisis? Judy Woodruff talks to top elected officials of two major metropolitan areas: Judge Lina Hidalgo of Harris County, Texas, and Mayor Carlos Gimenez of Miami-Dade County, Florida.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On the eve of the Fourth of July weekend, with coronavirus cases surging in much of the country and, in response, many businesses and public spaces once again shutting down we want to assess where we are and what our prospects might be going forward.

    To help us explore those questions and more, we turn to the top elected officials of two major metropolitan areas.

    Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat, is the head of the governing body of Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston. Mayor Carlos Gimenez is the Republican mayor of Miami-Dade County, Florida.

    And we welcome both of you to the "NewsHour." Thank you so much for joining us.

    Judge Hidalgo, to you first.

    Give us an update of where you stand right now in Harris County with COVID-19 and your attempts to get it under control.

  • Judge Lina Hidalgo:

    Right now in Harris County, we have crossed beyond our operational bed capacity in our intensive care units.

    So, our ICUs are already having to double up on staff ratios, on beds per room, and the hospitalization rate is increasing, sometimes faster with each passing day.

    I have put our community on red alert. As of the week ago, we are at the highest possible threat level. So, everybody is on alert. The problem is that, per the law, in theory, because I no longer have the power to enforce a stay-home order, as I did earlier on this year, people, in theory, can right now still go to restaurants.

    There could be a Rockets game, a basketball game, at the Toyota Center, if they wanted to. Many things are still open, and we are careening toward a disaster here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very, very tough.

    And Mayor, Mayor Gimenez, in Miami-Dade County, what are you facing there?

  • Mayor Carlos Gimenez:

    Well, we have had a rise in the percentage of positives here in Miami-Dade County.

    The number doesn't approach the real number. The official number is probably undercounted by a factor of 10, maybe even 20, here in Miami-Dade county. So we have had an increase in the number of patients in the hospital. We have had an increase in the number of people in ICUs and on ventilators.

    But we have capacity right now. So we have taken a lot of steps. We have — I have issued a curfew for 10:00 now countywide. We closed the beaches for the Fourth of July weekend. We have started to close some of the businesses that we had allowed to be open recently. Most of them are the large venue types, the casinos, bowling alleys, theaters.

    Those kinds of things are now shut down again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Mayor Carlos Gimenez:

    And so we are taking proactive steps to start to tamp down this virus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Judge Hidalgo, you used strong words. You said you are heading toward a disaster.

    You also mentioned that the governor, Greg Abbott, has overridden your ability, the ability of other local leaders to impose restrictions. How much difference is that making in your ability, do you think, to keep this under control?

  • Judge Lina Hidalgo:

    It is a huge difference. This is our second time in dealing with this.

    We had a spike back in March. I issued a stay-home order early, earlier in the viral load than many other communities, and so we didn't get to the crisis point that other communities ended up in. We managed to flatten the curve.

    But before the curve came down on the other side, there was a reopening. I felt that at the time it was too early, it was too much, but I said, I don't know for sure. Let's see. And I am going to do everything I can to make it work.

    We built an army of contact tracers, expanded access to testing. We had opportunities for isolation for first responders who came back positive going into nursing homes, homeless shelters, threw everything at the problem.

    But the reality of it is, after those reopenings, the increase started. And the strategy of incrementalism is not working in Harris County right now, when we are teetering on the brink of disaster.

    The goal is not to fill up all of the beds, see how close we can get to having all of the beds full, to having a bed for everybody to die in, and then trying to take action, drastic action. So that's what I am very, very concerned about.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we hear that, certainly, from your vivid description of what is going on.

    Mayor Gimenez, we know that, earlier in Miami and across the state of Florida, there was a desire to open up, to open up early. Now you are having to pull back. How much more difficult is it because, earlier, frankly, you and others had felt it was more important to get people out and get businesses open.

  • Mayor Carlos Gimenez:

    No, we actually had tamped down the virus here sufficiently.

    And the way that we opened was with the advice of our medical personnel. And so we had infectious disease control doctors that were a part of a process of, once we started to open, how to open.

    And so I have said, we have had a mask order in place. We never have taken it off. The problem is that people started thinking that this virus was really no more. We also had a number of demonstrations here, young people, that were gathered together. A lot of them weren't wearing masks and they were together for hours.

    And it wasn't a coincidence that, about two weeks after these demonstrations started, we started seeing these spikes. That probably was the main cause of why this virus went up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I just quickly want to ask both of you in the time that we have left, how hard is it to get these important messages out now, now that you are facing very difficult situation there in Houston and in Miami?

    Judge Hidalgo, how are you getting the message out, and how difficult is it, given what you have been through?

  • Judge Lina Hidalgo:

    Part of what I struggle with is enforceability.

    Right now, I can recommend to my community that they stay home. The goal is not to go out issuing fines, having a police officer on every street corner. That's never been the goal. But to have that enforceability provision, it shows folks that there is a requirement.

    What I need right now for my community, five million people, Houston and 33 other cities, is an enforceable order for people to stay home, consistent messaging at all levels of government, and then patience and being smart, not being the canary in the coal mine about what not to do.

    We need to be able to get that curve back down, and then open, based on the communities that have succeeded. What have they done? Let's learn from them. The ones that didn't, OK, that's a lesson maybe what we need to avoid.

    A lot of folks are learning by doing. But when we are in a crisis situation, as we are right now, we don't have room for experiments on our own people. And so we need consistent messaging and we need enforceable orders in order to get that message across.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally, just quickly, Mayor Gimenez, how are you persuading people now that this is serious?

    You have been saying that people didn't abide by what the rules were. How do you tell them now, this is real?

  • Mayor Carlos Gimenez:

    Well, very simple.

    I mean, obviously by issuing a curfew, that is a very strong indication that this is real. We do have the ability to enforce here. And we do enforce. We do now thousands inspections every day on our businesses.

    But it turns out that it went beyond the businesses. It went into the private homes. And people were socializing. And so the curfew is a way to start to limit that socialization, people getting together, having get-togethers, partying, et cetera, in order to start tamping that down, because you have to be home by 10:00 now here in Miami-Dade.

    Mask orders were always in place. And so the message is going out. I go out every day and I am on TV telling of the importance of keeping your mask on, keeping social distancing, making sure you wash your hands, making sure that you don't touch your face with your hands, those things,.

    If we just do that, as a community and as a country, if we just take those simple steps, we can beat this virus, because our infectious disease control doctors told us that that is what we need to do. And that's what we are going to be doing here in Miami-Dade County, and then we are going to ramp it up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Judge Lina Hidalgo, thank you very much.

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