Coronavirus spread prompts Gov. Greg Abbott to close Texas bars, limit restaurant capacity
AUSTIN — With COVID-19 cases in Texas increasing by the thousands each day and hospital capacity in danger of being overrun in some urban centers, Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday ordered bars to once again close and restaurants to reduce occupancy levels.
"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 announcing his latest orders. "The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health."
The new limits came one day after the governor said he would not take steps to further open the Texas economy and ordered hospitals in the state's largest counties to limit elective surgeries and other non-essential procedures.
Friday's order requires Texas bars to close at noon. Those businesses, however, may continue to provide delivery and take-out services, including for alcoholic beverages. Dining room occupancy for restaurants must be reduced from 75% to 50%.
Abbott also required rafting and tubing businesses to close and said outdoor gatherings of 100 or more people must be approved by local governments.
In a news conference earlier in the week, Abbott expressed confidence that businesses could continue operating even as measures were taken to slow what has been a steady and steep climb in caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths from the highly contagious coronavirus.
The governor said he did not want to have to reimpose the strict limits on nonessential business activities that he ordered soon after the virus was declared a worldwide pandemic in March. In May, those limits began being lifted in phases.
“Closing down Texas again will always be the last option," he said at the news conference.
Also Friday, Abbott announced the federal government will continue its financial support for COVID-19 Texas "while surging resources to Dallas and Houston." There had been plans by the federal government to discontinue funding testing in Texas.
Reaction to Abbott's orders
Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, said in a video news conference she did not dispute the need for action but also pointed out that the pandemic has decimated the bar and restaurant industry.
Seven in 10 Texas restaurants will not break even this year and 30 percent of all establishments in the state will not survive.
"We are desperate," Knight said. "This is a real setback for the sector that has taken the brunt of this."
She also said Abbott should reverse his opposition to issuing a statewide requirement that masks be worn in public to both help stop the spread and to alleviate the burden on wait staff and business operators of enforcing mask policies.
Dr. Diana L. Fite, president of the Texas Medical Association, said the renewed spread justifies Abbott's orders.
“We absolutely must stop the spread of COVID-19 in Texas," Fite said. "Governor Abbott’s actions today are intended to do just that. But Texans also need to take responsibility to protect ourselves and each other from this virus without government mandates."
Dr.Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist hospital, said Abbott's action was was "critically necessary."
"The message is clear. People have let their guard down and this must stop," Boom said. "We need to protect ourselves and each other so that this virus doesn’t take control. We must act now. If it takes control, bad things will happen and people will die unnecessarily."
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, in a video conference organized by the Texas Democratic Party, said the reclosure of bars and reimposed occupancy levels in restaurants underscores assertions that the governor was too quick to reopen the economy in the first place.
"This doctors told us this will be a disaster, and it has been," said Jenkins, who imposed stay-at-home orders in his county well before Abbott issued his first statewide directives.
Coronavirus cases in Texas
The coronavirus caseload continues to break new records by the day in Texas. State health officials said almost 6,000 people tested positive on Thursday and more than 4,700 people were in the hospital with COVID-19, continuing a record-setting pace that started two weeks ago.
Abbott did not say how long the new restrictions would be in place, or if additional measures to stem the spread are planned.
"We want this to be as limited in duration as possible." he said. "However, we can only slow the spread if everyone in Texas does their part. 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."