Governors who quickly reopened backpedal as virus surges

Gov. Greg Abbott addresses a news conference at the State Capitol in Austin, Texas, about the coronavirus pandemic Monday, June 22, 2020. Abbott said he has no plans to shut down the state again. "We must find ways to return to our daily routines as well as finding ways to coexist with COVID-19," Abbott said.

AUSTIN — 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.

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.

And later Friday, Abbott expressed regret for how he handled the reopening of bars in the first place.

"If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars, now seeing in the aftermath of how quickly the coronavirus spread in the bar setting," he said during an evening interview with KVIA in El Paso.

On Thursday, Abbott 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.

"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 the decision 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. U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D- Houston, called for Abbott to expand testing in the state and give more power to local officials to regulate activity in their jurisdictions.

"Governor Abbott failed the people of Texas when he rushed to reopen the state last month," she said. "Instead of listening to doctors and public health officials and asking us to cover our face, he was more concerned with covering for President Trump and going back to business as usual."

Some local officials and business leaders also urged Abbott to do more, especially with regard to face masks.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo elevated the state's biggest county's threat assessment to its highest level, urging residents to stay home. And Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins 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."

Later Friday, the city of Abilene said it will not enforce Abbott's order but encouraged business owners and residents "to use common sense, and to follow the Governor's Executive Orders to the extent they can." City leaders made the decision "under the advice of the City Attorney," Abilene City Manager Robert Hanna said in a statement, later telling The Texas Tribune that the move was not an attempt to "make a political statement."

"We're just trying to say, hey, look, TABC is the enforcer on alcohol in Texas," Hanna said. "We're not ignoring the governor's orders. We never have and we never will."

The Texas Restaurant Association also reiterated its push for a statewide mandate on masks, removing the burden from restaurants to enforce policies themselves. Abbott previously banned counties and cities from enforcing mask policies on individuals, but later allowed them to fine businesses who didn’t require them. This means restaurants can face fines for not enforcing the policies.

In an already bleeding industry, this puts restaurant employees in a dangerous and unfair situation, said Emily Williams Knight, president of the Texas Restaurant Association, during a virtual press conference Friday morning.

Williams added that, while the capacity reduction feels like a “big step backward,” other issues restaurants are making the issue worse.

“We're currently projecting 30% of our restaurants could close. We'll see what the next couple weeks bring, but that number could accelerate,” she said. “I don't think the 50% [capacity limit] alone will be the driver. I think it's part of a much larger puzzle that restaurants are carrying the burden on right now — many are not going to make it.”

Knight said most restaurants have struggled to reach 50% capacity due to social distancing guidelines anyway — they typically didn’t have the square footage to keep a larger number of people six feet apart. She said that the decision to scale back capacity wasn’t surprising given the recent increase in COVID-19 case count, and the association supports the decision in the name of public health and preventing further shutdowns.

“If you were to go back to zero percent, it would definitely be catastrophic,” she said. “We don't want to get there and that's why I think if we go to 50% for restaurants that that is the right decision today.”

Reese Oxner and Cassi Pollock contributed reporting.

"Gov. Greg Abbott orders Texas bars to close again and restaurants to reduce to 50% occupancy as coronavirus spreads" was first published by The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state.

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