Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday took his most drastic action yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas, shutting bars back down and scaling back restaurant capacity to 50%.
He also shut down river-rafting trips, which have been blamed for a swift rise in cases in Hays County, and banned outdoor gatherings of over 100 people unless local officials approve.
“At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars," Abbott said in a news release. "The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health."
Bars must close at noon Friday, and the reduction in restaurant capacity takes effect Monday. Before Abbott's announcement Friday, bars were able to operate at 50% capacity and restaurants at 75% capacity.
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As for outdoor gatherings, Abbott's decision Friday represents his second adjustment in that category this week. Abbott on Tuesday gave local governments the choice to place restrictions on outdoor gatherings of over 100 people after previously setting the threshold at over 500 people. Now outdoor gatherings of over 100 people are prohibited unless local officials explicitly approve of them. State officials have noted that case numbers in Texas began to increase around Memorial Day weekend, and have expressed worry about big public gatherings for Fourth of July.
Abbott's actions Friday were his first significant moves to reverse the reopening process that he has led since late April. He said Monday that shutting down the state again is a last resort, but the situation has been worsening quickly.
Abbott put Texas under what was effectively a stay-at-home order for most of April, shutting down all but businesses considered essential by the state. After letting that order expire at the end of April, he moved forward with a phased reopening of the state that was one of the earliest and quickest in the country. By early June, Abbott had permitted almost all business to open at at least 50% capacity.
But cases have climbed rapidly in recent weeks. On Thursday, Texas saw another record number of new cases — 5,996 — as well as hospitalizations — 4,739. The hospitalization number set a record for the 14th straight day. During the increase, Abbott has cited Texas' large hospital capacity and the availability of respirators. But many hospitals in Texas' big cities have reported crowded intensive care units in recent days, and some cities have begun reviving plans to treat patients at convention centers and stadiums.
There has also been rapid rise in the state's positivity rate, or the ratio of tests that come back positive. The rate, presented by the state as a seven-day average, has gone up to 11.76% — where it was at in mid-April and above the 10% threshold that Abbott has said would cause alarm for the reopening process.
Abbott specifically cited the positivity rate in explaining his actions Friday.
“As I said from the start, if the positivity rate rose above 10%, the State of Texas would take further action to mitigate the spread of COVID-19," he said.
On Thursday, he announced the state was putting a pause on any future reopening plans, though none were scheduled and the announcement did not affect businesses that were already allowed to reopen. Earlier in the day, Abbott sought to free up hospital space for coronavirus patients by banning elective surgeries in four of the state's biggest counties: Bexar, Travis, Dallas and Harris.
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"We want this to be as limited in duration as possible. However, we can only slow the spread if everyone in Texas does their part," Abbott said. "Every Texan has a responsibility to themselves and their loved ones to wear a mask, wash their hands, stay six feet apart from others in public, and stay home if they can."
Democrats said they were grateful for Abbott's announcement Friday but that it came too late and was the latest example of a mismanaged response from the start.
Abbott's latest moves "will help, but because the governor has waited so long to act, it's going to be very hard to put this genie back in the bottle," state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said during a state Democratic Party conference call.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, also a Democrat, said Abbott "is now being forced to do the things that we have been demanding that he do for the last month and a half." Jenkins added that Abbott still needs to issue a statewide order requiring Texans to wear masks and until then, "we will continue to see more and more people getting sick, and we won't be able to reverse this second wave."
Abbott has resisted calls for such a statewide order but clarified earlier this month that local governments can order businesses to require customers to wear masks.