Texas orders bars to close, reduces restaurant capacity amid record COVID-19 cases

Friday's restrictions are some of the most significant actions Gov. Abbott has taken yet, signaling a change of course from the state's aggressive reopening strategy


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
By Tessa Weinberg

To combat record-breaking new cases and hospitalizations of the novel coronavirus, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a new executive order Friday ordering bars to close by noon and reducing restaurants' capacity to 50%.

Bars may remain open for delivery and take-out services, including for alcoholic drinks. Starting Monday, restaurants must return to 50% dine-in capacity. Previously, bars had been permitted to reopen at 50% capacity, and restaurants were allowed to operate at up to 75% occupancy.

Sophia Ramirez disinfects the bar at TJ's Seafood restaurant in Dallas on May 19, 2020. Gov. Abbott has ordered restaurants to no longer operate beyond 50% capacity in wake of startling new COVID numbers. Image: Smiley N. Pool/Dallas Morning News via TNS
Sophia Ramirez disinfects the bar at TJ's Seafood restaurant in Dallas on May 19, 2020. Gov. Abbott has ordered restaurants to no longer operate beyond 50% capacity in wake of startling new COVID numbers. Image: Smiley N. Pool/Dallas Morning News via TNS

Abbott also ordered rafting and tubing businesses to close by noon, and required local government approval for most outdoor gatherings of 100 people or more. Amid a surge in cases, local officials have recently restricted access to popular recreation areas and swimming spots due to overcrowding.

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 statement Friday. "The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health. 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."

Friday's restrictions are some of the most significant actions Abbott has taken yet, signaling a change of course from the state's aggressive reopening over the course of the pandemic. On Monday, Abbott had struck a newly urgent tone, but said that closing down the state "will always be the last option."

Abbott had announced a pause on further reopenings Thursday, and said the catalyst for Friday's restrictions was the infection rate — the number of positive cases out of those tested — exceeding 10%.

The state's seven-day average infection rate rose to 11.76% Wednesday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. That's the highest it has been since mid-April, and Abbott had previously said during a May 5 press conference that if the infection rate exceeded 10% for multiple days "that is a warning flag for us to keep track of."

During a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing Friday, Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the task force, said that while Texas' infection rate declined throughout May while testing increased, in the last two-and-half weeks the infection rate has risen.

"It was the increase in test positivity that alerted us, along with the increased cases, that this was becoming an alert," Birx said of Texas.

Friday's rollback comes a little over three weeks after Abbott had announced the most recent phase of reopenings, allowing nearly all businesses to increase their capacity to at least 50%. Abbott had allowed his order requiring Texans to stay home unless accessing "essential" services to expire at the end of April, and since then malls, movie theaters, hair salons and more have been allowed to reopen in waves at a limited capacity.

The pace of Abbott's reopenings has been criticized from both directions. Hardline conservatives have called for a quicker reopening to reboot the economy, and some North Texas counties have passed resolutions declaring themselves fully open for business. Meanwhile, Democrats have said rising cases need to decline first.

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement Friday that Abbott's newest order "is far too little too late."

"The dam has burst in Texas and now Texans are paying the price," Hinojosa said.

Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat from Grand Prairie and Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said Friday during a Texas Democratic Party press conference that closing bars was a needed step, "but because the governor has waited so long to act, it's going to be very difficult to put this genie back in the bottle."

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who has publicly sparred with Abbott, said Texas needs stricter statewide requirements, including a mask mandate, otherwise "we will continue to see more and more people getting sick and we won't be able to reverse this second wave."

Abbott reintroduced new limits this week amid record-breaking levels of new cases and hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients.

On Tuesday, Abbott allowed mayors and county judges to impose additional restrictions on outdoor gatherings estimated to have more than 100 people. Previously, local officials were only permitted to impose restrictions for gatherings of more than 500 people.

On Thursday, for the second time over the course of the pandemic, Abbott announced he was suspending elective medical procedures — but initially only for the counties of Bexar, Dallas, Harris and Travis.

Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients have increased every day for two weeks straight, with 4,739 patients hospitalized Thursday — an increase of 350 patients from the previous record of 4,389 hospitalized Wednesday. Hospitalizations have risen nearly every day of June and have more than tripled since the 1,511 patients hospitalized on Memorial Day.

Texas also reported a new single-day high Thursday with 5,996 new COVID-19 cases — up 445 cases from Wednesday's record of 5,551. The state also reported 47 new deaths, bringing the number of COVID-19 related fatalities to at least 2,296.

In the wake of Memorial Day weekend, public health experts have said it's not entirely unexpected that the number of cases has increased as businesses reopen and people begin to gather and venture outside. Abbott has previously acknowledged that reopening businesses and relaxing restrictions could lead to a resurgence in cases, but has stressed that the state has the resources in place to combat any surges.

This week, state leaders doubled down on the need for Texans to recommit to best practices and social distancing guidelines, and Abbott has said "the safest place for you is at your home."

In Tarrant County, local officials followed in the footsteps of Texas' largest metros and Thursday issued an executive order requiring face masks in all Tarrant County businesses and at outdoor gatherings with more than 100 people. After Abbott signaled his approval of Bexar County's mask mandate on businesses last week, local officials across the state began to issue similar orders.

When asked if he would consider mandating face coverings be worn statewide, Abbott said during a Monday press conference that in a state the size of Texas, it is important to maintain a level of flexibility as some cities see record surges, while other areas have few confirmed cases.

Next: Florida bans alcohol consumption at bars as COVID-19 cases soar past record

(c)2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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