AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republican Gov. Greg Abbott shut down bars in Texas again on Friday and scaled back restaurant dining, the most dramatic reversals yet as confirmed coronavirus cases surge to record levels after the state embarked on one of America’s fastest reopenings.
The abrupt closures began just days after Abbott described shutting down business as a last resort, and reflect how urgently Texas is scrambling to contain what is now one of the nation’s biggest hotspots. In the last four days alone, Texas has reported more than 23,000 confirmed new cases, and Friday surpassed 5,000 hospitalizations for the first time — a threefold increase from a month ago.
“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. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”
He also ordered rafting and tubing outfitters on Texas’ popular rivers to close, and required outdoor gatherings of 100 people or more to first seek approval from local governments.
It remains far from a full retreat, and critics swiftly protested that Abbott was still understating the severity of the spread and contradicting his own warnings.
On Sunday, Abbott will join Vice President Mike Pence at a Dallas megachurch for a “Celebrate Freedom” service indoors. Social distancing protocols are promised, but Dallas officials still worry the event will lead to more spread. It comes at the end of a week in which Abbott has urged people to stop going out, saying “there’s never a reason for you to have to leave your home.”
The Texas GOP is also pressing ahead with a July convention in Houston and won’t require face coverings even though Abbott, the party leader, says everyone in Texas should wear one. And on Monday, early in-person voting begins in Texas for primary runoffs that Abbott postponed in March, saying at the time that holding the election as scheduled would “threaten the health and safety of many Texans.”
At that time, Texas had but a few dozen reported cases. On Thursday, the number of hospitalizations soared past 4,700, a doubling in under two weeks.
Abbott began lifting lockdown orders in May, and accelerated his own timelines on some openings amid protests from conservatives.
“The doctors told us at the time, and told anyone who would listen, this will be a disaster. And it has been,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat who is the county’s top official, said. “Once again, the governor is slow to act. He is now being forced to do the things that we’ve been demanding that he do for the last month and a half.”
Texas reached a record high positive tests of 5,996 on Thursday. The state’s rolling infection rate was at nearly 12%, a level not seen since the state was in a broad lockdown. In May, Abbott set anything over 10% as a “red flag” in his reopening plan, which he says was backed by White House.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the COVID-19 virus without feeling sick.
Under the newest rollbacks, restaurant dining rooms must scale back to half capacity starting Monday. The Texas Restaurant Association supported the rollback, but also pointed out that social distancing made it hard for most restaurants to exceed 50% capacity anyway.
The group also continued to press Abbott for a statewide mask policy. “It’s to ensure our restaurants aren’t law enforcement,” said Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the organization.
Abbott is not the only governorbackpedaling following a swift reopening. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, also a Republican, is also telling residents to stay home and on Thursday declaring the state “on pause” as hospitals accelerate toward capacity.
Associated Press writer Jake Bleiberg in Dallas contributed to this report.