Coronavirus pandemic

Bell County bars can reopen at 50 percent capacity as the Department of State Health Services no longer considers Bell County a high-hospitalization area, Bell County Judge David Blackburn said Wednesday.

“It is very encouraging to see our COVID-19 hospitalization rates have dropped,” Blackburn said. “I know there are many Bell County businesses that are eager to reopen to higher occupancy levels.” 

Blackburn’s announcement came days after Texas Department of State Health Services data on Monday showed that Trauma Service Area L — a region that includes Bell, Milam, Coryell, Lampasas, Hamilton and Mills counties — surpassed the 15 percent threshold again on Sunday with a hospitalization rate of 19.63 percent.

However, DSHS spokesman Chris Van Deusen said Wednesday that figure was incorrect. 

“There was initially an error in the hospital capacity numbers we received from the hospitals,” Van Deusen said. “It was corrected later, but it looks like that didn’t make it to the public dashboard.”

Van Deusen said the correct percentage should have been 11.1 percent for Feb. 7. “We’ll get it updated,” he said.

Bell County spokesman James Stafford said John Hellerstedt, the Texas Department of State Health Services’ commissioner, confirmed that hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Bell County’s trauma service area has not exceeded 15 percent of the region’s total hospital capacity for seven consecutive days — a requirement to reopen certain businesses to 75 percent capacity. 

“Certain Bell County venues may now reopen to 75 percent capacity levels as allowed under (executive order) GA-32,” Stafford said. “Additionally, Judge Blackburn filed the necessary paperwork with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to allow the reopening of bars and similar establishments in Bell County (to 50 percent). He submitted that paperwork this morning.”

Blackburn also said he noticed the inaccurate figure displayed on the DSHS’ public dashboard. 

“It was resolved internally at DSHS but I didn’t know that … I was just happy to get the letter,” he told the Telegram Wednesday afternoon. “But I think this good news for businesses in Bell County and Bell County in general.”

He added that area hospital systems seem hopeful that Trauma Service Area L’s COVID-19 hospitalization rate will continue to decline. 

“I think they are hoping that will be the case,” Blackburn said. “I had discussions with the hospitals once I received the letter, and they’re making plans to resume more normalized operations. But they still have a significant number of COVID-19 patients in the hospitals, so we’ll all be watching that hospital capacity number in the days moving forward.”

Businesses, which include restaurants, retail stores, office buildings, gyms, museums and libraries, were initially ordered to reduce occupancy to 50 percent on Jan. 5 after Blackburn received a letter from Hellerstedt confirming that Trauma Service Area L was considered to be “a high hospitalization area.”

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