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New Houston website spotlights which local businesses practice COVID-19 protocols

A new site helps Houstonians navigate businesses and their COVID-19 safety protocols. Anvil Bar & Refuge/Facebook

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's dismissal of the mask mandate and reopening of the state on March 10 has left some locals liberated — and some worried about safely venturing out. Those in the latter column can now rely on a new local website to help navigate the new no-mask-required environs.

Space City Safe, a crowd-sourced tool, shares information about COVID protocols at local Houston businesses. Users can hop on and search a business by type, name, or address and learn of its COVID-19 safety measures — if any. Site visitors can also add info on a business, including type of industry, mask and social distancing requirements, and more.

"I was inspired by the Houston blog It's Not Hou It's Me," Chris Haseler, the site's founder, tells CultureMap. (The blog is co-founded by Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap.) "They posted a cool crowdsourced Google spreadsheet collecting information about local businesses. I wanted to build that concept into a sustainable tool that people could use easily over the next few months to stay safe."

Haseler reports that user response has been "overwhelmingly positive" thus far, with users thanking him especially for spotlighting restaurants where they can "safely" dine. "Most users are appreciative of what I'm trying to accomplish here and willing to share their experiences at different businesses," he adds.

"A number of business owners have also been thankful for a way to share their COVID safety policies with potential customers."

The site currently boasts more than 500 and shows no signs of slowing. Haseler, a Heights-area engineer, says he'll continue to mask up when out and about. "I'll continue to do so until our scientists and doctors at the CDC say it's safe to do otherwise — and with vaccines becoming more readily available, hopefully that is soon."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

For over a year now, scientists have been testing wastewater for COVID-19. Now, the public can access that information. Photo via Getty Images

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

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