STEPHEN HEMELT — Rapid changing of orders adds to unease

Published 12:13 am Saturday, March 21, 2020

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Change is difficult; rapid change is exponentially more difficult.

When all of society has to do it at the same time due to coronavirus response, open lines of communication are vital.

That’s the No. 1 problem, numerous public officials tell The Port Arthur News, with the way Jefferson County relays emergency orders and their impacts to Port Arthur and Mid County.

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First, let’s be clear. Coronavirus and COVID-19 is causing an unprecedented impact to communities across the globe. It is unrealistic to expect any governing authority to be fully prepared and 100 percent efficient in its response.

However, we do now have more than a week between today and Jefferson County’s first disaster declaration to see what went right and what can be approved.

Using that information to better deploy future resources puts us all in a better position to handle the troubling weeks and months that remain ahead.

On March 13, Judge Jeff Branick declared a state of disaster in Jefferson County.

That was a Friday, and led to immediate concern in Mid County, which was three days into the family friendly Nederland Heritage Festival. By mid-afternoon, festival organizers canceled, only to reverse the decision hours later. Some officials told us Branick’s March 13 declaration didn’t take effect until March 16, therefore allowing the event to continue through March 15.

Also on March 13, school district leaders in Nederland, Port Neches-Groves and Port Arthur each announced that school would resume March 16 despite the day’s earlier state of disaster declaration. That news wasn’t shared until approximately 5 p.m., meaning there wasn’t much time left in the day to soak up the news.

The late-days news drops continued on Sunday/March 15 when district leaders from Nederland and PNG announced school was closed.

Port Arthur school leaders announced the same March 16 after operating for a day.

What changed in those 48 hours (72 in Port Arthur’s case)?

That is a theme for much of the confusion. We’re often hearing about these declarations second- and third-hand, but the reasons for the escalating shutdowns are not being as readily shared.

At 4:01 p.m. March 13, Judge Jeff Branick signed an amended emergency order canceling events of 200 or more at Jefferson County facilities and strongly suggesting such events at private facilities cancel, as well. Emergency Management Office and Public Health Authority information was cited as reasons for the limit at 200.

A second amended emergency order was signed at 4:23 p.m. March 16, limiting gatherings to 50 people on public property and urging similar action on private property.

A day later, the city of Port Arthur declared a public health emergency, with city leaders prohibiting gatherings of 50 or more at public facilities in response to the coronavirus pandemic, mirroring the amended order from Branick.

By 5:38 p.m. March 18, Judge Branick had signed a third emergency order closing bars and nightclubs and limiting gatherings to 10 or more people on public and private property.

Grocery stores and convenience stores, which routinely house more than 10 people at a time, were allowed to stay open because of their essential service supplies.

Two more county orders were signed March 19, and the city of Port Arthur echoed the restrictions March 20.

The constant ramp up of restrictions repeated on a 24-hour cycle add to the unease. Local law enforcement complained they didn’t know about the county’s juvenile curfew until informed by reporters.

Mid-County mayors complained they were not invited to a county press conference March 19.

These are difficult times, and it’s obvious they are not ending in the immediate future. To ease an already stressed out public, I urge our elected leaders to come together and set a standard for life going forward.

We’ve got to avoid upping the ante every other day because it crushes morale, leads to wild rumors and hinders credibility.

I don’t envy anyone in charge. They face an unprecedented challenge. Communication and calm remain our keys to perseverance.


Stephen Hemelt is the publisher at The Port Arthur News. He can be reached at or 409-721-2445.