It’s Here: Houstonians Navigate A World Marked By Fear Of Coronavirus.

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It’s Here: Houstonians Navigate A World Marked By Fear Of Coronavirus

Verenice Martinez emerged from the packed Trader Joe’s in Montrose pushing a shopping cart piled high with groceries.

It was the third shopping trip the 27-year-old had made in the last week — spurred by the spread of the new coronavirus.

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“Seeing how other countries are at a standstill, we want to be able to sustain ourselves at home,” she said. “And not be in the madness.”

By some measures, daily life went on as usual Thursday — but there was an underlying tension to it all, as people in Houston, and around the world, confronted a new reality.

They’d witnessed a torrent of significant developments: The World Health Organization labeled the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. The death toll in Italy rose above 1,000. Major sports leagues canceled or delayed seasons and tournaments.

Houston was not spared from that, as the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo shut down, local courts postponed trials and officials in Harris and three neighboring counties issued disaster declarations. And the Harris County Toll Road Authority announced it would no longer accept potentially germ-laden cash.

Some Houstonians now must limit business travel or work from home. More than 20 school districts canceled classes, along with area universities. Smaller organizations had to decide whether to hold planned events and local exercise groups scrapped workouts.

On HoustonChronicle.Com: Houston doctors frustrated by lack of coronavirus test kits

Lakewood Church has suspended live worship services. The church is holding virtual services, mirroring similar efforts by schools, businesses — and even workout groups — to move online.

With a lot still unknown about how long and to what extent daily life will change, residents are just trying to keep track of it all. The smallest decisions — like eating with friends, taking a trip, or sending one’s kid to school — have taken on new weight.

“I’m just trying to stay updated on the news,” said Reese Svetgoff, 21, student at the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, as he loaded meat, water, pasta and rice into his pickup. “I think people are just trying to stay ahead of it and be smart.”

The scene where he shopped at the H-E-B on West Alabama was becoming a familiar one. Shelves that once held hand sanitizer, tuna, toilet paper and soup were all meager or bare.

“It’s like the end of the world,” one shopper joked.

But other businesses were newly grappling with changed routines and trying to reassure customers that they were taking steps to keep them safe. Dulce Alcantar, 29, of Pasadena, said she and other employees at the spa where she works now ask potential customers if they’ve traveled recently.

If they have symptoms, they are turned away, she said.

If you have travel plans and are deciding whether to cancel, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has this advice:Crowded travel settings, like airports, may increase your risk of exposure to COVID-19, if there are other travelers with COVID-19. Questions to consider include

Is COVID-19 spreading where you’re going?

If COVID-19 is spreading at your destination, but not where you live, you may be at higher risk of exposure if you travel there.

Will you or your travel companion(s) be in close contact with others during your trip?

Your risk of exposure to respiratory viruses like COVID-19 may increase in crowded settings, particularly closed-in settings with little air circulation, if there are people in the crowd who are sick. This may include settings such as conferences, public events (like concerts and sporting events), religious gatherings, public spaces (like movie theatres and shopping malls), and public transportation (like buses, metro, trains).

Are you or your travel companion(s) at higher risk of severe illness if you do get COVID-19?

People at higher risk for severe disease are older adults and people of any age with serious chronic medical conditions (such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes). CDC recommends that travelers at higher risk for COVID-19 complications avoid all cruise travel and nonessential air travel.

Do you have a plan for taking time off from work or school, in case you get exposed to, or are sick with, COVID-19?

If you have close contact with someone with COVID-19 during travel, you may be asked to stay home to self-monitor and avoid contact with others for up to 14 days after travel. If you become sick with COVID-19, you may be unable to go to work or school until you’re considered noninfectious. You will be asked to avoid contact with others (including being in public places) during this period of infectiousness.

Do you live with someone who is older or has a severe chronic health condition?

If you get sick with COVID-19 upon your return from travel, your household contacts may be at risk of infection. Household contacts who are older adults or have severe chronic medical conditions are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19

Is COVID-19 spreading where you live?

Consider the risk of passing COVID-19 to others during travel, particularly if you will be in close contact with people who are older adults or have severe chronic health condition These people are at higher risk of getting very sick. If your symptoms are mild or you don’t have a fever, you may not realize you are infectious.

If you do decide to travel, be sure to take the same precautions advised elsewhere to prevent getting and spreading COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases: wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, keep your distance from others, cough and sneeze into your elbow, don’t touch your face.

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On HoustonChronicle.Com: 'It will domino pretty quickly': Harris County courts react to coronavirus, cancel jury trials

At Brazos Bookstore on Bissonnet Thursday afternoon, an employee bent over to pick up a toy astronaut a child left behind. She grabbed it using her T-shirt, then took it to the counter to clean it with a Lysol wipe.

“Who knows how many hands have touched it at this point,” she said.

Even in Nu Cuts Hair Salon on Westheimer, where business was humming along, stylist Xiomara Velasquez still worried about the days to come.

Other workers in small businesses were worried too — about losing jobs, about lacking paid sick time.

“I’m wondering how it will affect everything later,” Velasquez said. “I’m pretty sure by next week we’ll see a drop in business.”

On HoustonChronicle.Com: Her dad was the Houston area’s first coronavirus patient. She felt dumbstruck.

At George Bush Intercontinental Airport, travelers wore face masks and were cutting trips short. One woman tied a piece of fabric over her face. On the intercom, a reminder for travelers to wash their hands and cover their coughs played periodically.

Maria De Alba walked into the Terminal E lobby wearing her mask. She didn’t feel relaxed, like returning vacationers usually do.

“It’s stressful coming back,” she said.

The 50-year-old mother from San Antonio was traveling home after a week spent visiting family in El Salvador. She got the mask at the airport that morning, hoping it would help keep her safe. She felt scared, uncertain and eager to get to the grocery store.

Latika Kohli, 51, was among those hurrying home earlier than planned, not knowing if travel restrictions would broaden. She cut her business trip to Mexico City short and was making her way back to New Delhi.

She felt a little funny wearing a mask — which she took off to drink coffee — and had forgotten to put on her gloves.

“It’s going to take some getting used to,” she said.

On HoustonChronicle.Com: Everything we know after 'community spread' starts in Houston

While some Houstonians Thursday said they weren’t too afraid of contracting the virus — which authorities say is 10 times more lethal than the regular flu — many said they were worried about the possibility of a sustained economic downturn or shortages in healthcare availability or even just basic groceries over the coming weeks.

With the closure of more than 20 school districts Thursday, parents are going to have to figure out how to care for their children while juggling jobs and new concerns about safety.

In Conroe ISD, parent Micki Babbs worried about sending her eighth-grade daughter, who suffers from a weakened immune system, and her fifth-grade daughter, who has asthma, to school. But the district, which is on spring break, will remain closed next week.

“You do want to put a certain amount of faith and hope in the CDC, the health officials,” Babbs said. “It’s hard because you, as a parent, have that natural instinct to want to protect. No parent wants to see their child sick.”

At the Trader Joe’s, Martinez said she was still working, but anticipated her bosses might tell employees work from home in the coming days.

She and her mom had a plan ready: cooking Mexican food and hunkering down.

They’d gotten toilet paper and cleaning supplies from Sam’s Club, vegetables and dry goods, and on Thursday loaded up on bread, pasta, water and other necessities.

“Just things to hold us over,” the legal assistant said, with a laugh. “We stocked up on wine.”

Chronicle reporters Jacob Carpenter, Robert Downen and Shelby Webb contributed to this story.



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