Denton County Judge Andy Eads on Tuesday issued a “stay at home” executive order effective 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.

Eads said the move is being made as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to increase across Denton County. As of noon Wednesday there were 36 confirmed cases in the county.

“Sometimes you have to make a decision between two bad choices,” Eads said. “And I am erring on the side of saving lives.”

The order is in place until March 31 unless changed by the Commissioners Court.

The order requires residents to stay at home except to perform essential activities, travel to businesses outside of Denton County, provide or perform essential governmental functions or to operate essential businesses.

Essential activities include activities needed for one's health; to obtain necessary supplies; work to provide essential products and services; to care for a family member and certain outdoor activities.

Restaurants can only provide take-out, delivery or drive-through services.

Outdoor activities such as jogging and biking are allowed provided the individual maintains 6 feet of distance from other people.

“The quicker we properly keep our distance, the quicker the kids can return to school and our lives and businesses can continue,” Eads said.

Social gatherings, in public or at someone's home, are prohibited.

“All social events must stop, period,” Eads said. “That alone will have the biggest impact on our county.”

The order requires the closure of non-essential businesses.

Essential businesses include those dealing with healthcare operations; essential government functions; work necessary for critical infrastructure; retail such as grocery stores, liquor stores, gas stations and convenience stores; childcare services and businesses providing basic necessities to economically disadvantaged populations.

“If you are not listed as an essential business in this order, you should either allow your employees to work from home … or cease operations temporarily until we can give you the all clear to reopen,” Eads said. “Community spread is here in Denton County, and we know that it will continue for a while.”

Religious services can only be conducted online or through teleconference. Religious institutions must limit the in-person staff preparing for those services to no more than 10 people.

Eads said the efforts aim to reduce the surge of cases that he said could overwhelm the healthcare system in North Texas.

“Hospitals, which help us in our greatest hour of need, are now asking us to help them,” Eads said.

Jody Gonzalez, director of Denton County Emergency Services, said the order can be enforced, and violators could face a $1,000 fine or up to 180 days in jail.

“We want compliance before we have full-fledged enforcement,” Gonzalez said.

On March 13 the county limited gatherings to 250 people or fewer. On March 18 the order was amended to limit gatherings to 50 people, and it asked restaurants to only operate with drive-thru, carry-out, curbside or delivery services. It also closed bars, lounges, taverns, private clubs, arcades and gyms.

On March 22 the county limited gatherings to 10 people or fewer and asked non-essential businesses to close. That followed the first case of community spread in the county that was reported from the Denton State Supported Living Center in the city of Denton. He said there have been four confirmed cases there with likely more to come. He said there are more than 400 residents and more than 1,000 employees.

“If we make these sacrifices now and for the foreseeable future we'll have a positive outcome,” Eads said. “And hopefully we won't become the headlines we see in Italy and around the world.”

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