Texas Closes Bars, Limits Restaurant Occupancy as Coronavirus Cases Rise

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Governor Greg Abbott took his most drastic step on Friday to respond to the coronavirus outbreak after the Texas reopening, closing bars and reducing restaurant capacity to 50%.

He also ended rafting trips, which have been blamed for a rapid increase in the number of cases in Hays County, and has banned open-air gatherings of more than 100 people unless local authorities approve .

“At the moment, it is clear that the increase in the number of cases is largely due to certain types of activity, including Texans who gather in bars,” Abbott said in a statement. “The actions of this decree are essential to our mission to contain this virus and protect public health. ”

Bars must close at noon on Friday and restaurant capacity reduction takes effect on Monday. Before Abbott’s announcement on Friday, bars could run 50% and restaurants could 75%.

[Read more: Texas’ coronavirus positivity rate exceeds “warning flag” level Abbott set as businesses reopened]

As for outdoor gatherings, Abbott’s decision on Friday represents its second adjustment in this category this week. Abbott gave local governments the choice on Tuesday to impose restrictions on open gatherings of more than 100 people after setting the threshold at more than 500 people. Henceforth, open-air gatherings of more than 100 people are prohibited unless the local authorities explicitly approve them. State officials noted that the number of cases in Texas began to increase around Memorial Day weekend and expressed concern over the large public gatherings for July 4.

Abbott’s actions on Friday were his first major steps to reverse the reopening process he has had since late April. He said on Monday that shutting down the state again was only a last resort, but the situation was getting worse.

Abbott imposed on Texas what was, in effect, a residence order for most of April, shutting down all businesses except those deemed essential by the state. After allowing the order to expire in late April, he moved forward with a gradual reopening of the state, which was one of the oldest and fastest in the country. In early June, Abbott allowed almost all companies to open at least 50% of their capacity.

But cases have grown rapidly in recent weeks. Texas reported a new record number of new cases – 5,996 – and hospital admissions – 4,739 on Thursday. The number of hospitalizations set a record for the 14th day in a row. During this increase, Abbott cited Texas’ large hospital capacity and the availability of respirators. But many hospitals in major cities in Texas have reported crowded intensive care units in recent days, and some cities have started to revive patient treatment plans at convention centers and stadiums.

There has also been a rapid increase in the state’s positivity rate, or in the ratio of tests that return positive. The rate, presented by the state as a seven-day average, rose to 11.76% – where it was in mid-April and above the 10% threshold which Abbott said would alarm the reopening process .

Abbott specifically cited the positivity rate when explaining his actions on Friday.

“As I said at the outset, if the positivity rate exceeds 10%, the State of Texas would take further steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” he said.

On Thursday, he announced that the state was putting a pause on all future plans to reopen, although none are planned and the announcement has not affected businesses that were already allowed to reopen. Earlier today, Abbott sought to free up hospital space for coronavirus patients by banning elective surgery in four of the state’s largest counties: Bexar, Travis, Dallas and Harris.

[Read more: As evictions resume in Texas, unemployed renters have few options]

“We want this time to be as limited as possible. However, we can only slow the spread if everyone in Texas does their part, ”said Abbott. “Every Texan has a responsibility to themselves and their loved ones to wear a mask, wash their hands, stay six feet from others in public, and stay at 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 measures “will help, but since the governor has waited so long to act, it will be very difficult to put this genius back in the bottle,” said representative Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, president of the House Democratic Caucus, said during a Democratic Party conference call. US representative Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, called on Abbott to expand testing across the state and empower local officials to regulate activity in their jurisdictions.

“Governor Abbott missed 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 faces, he was more concerned with covering President Trump and going back to business as usual. ”

Some local officials and business leaders have also urged Abbott to do more, especially when it comes to face masks.

Harris County judge Lina Hidalgo raised the county’s largest threat assessment to its highest level, urging residents to stay at home. And Dallas County judge Clay Jenkins said that Abbott “is now forced to do the things we have been asking him for a month and a half.” Jenkins added that Abbott has yet to issue a statewide order requiring the Texans to wear masks and that by then “we will continue to see more and more people get sick, and we will not we will not be able to reverse this second wave ”.

The Texas Restaurant Association also reiterated its pressure for a state-wide mandate on masks, removing the burden on restaurants to enforce the policies themselves. Abbott previously prohibited counties and cities from applying masking policies to individuals, but then allowed them to sentence businesses that did not need it.This means restaurants can face fines for not enforcing policies.

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

Williams added that while the reduction in capacity appears to be a “big step backwards”, other problems compound the problem.

“We currently expect that 30% of our restaurants could close. We’ll see what the next few weeks bring, but that number could accelerate, “she said. “I don’t think the 50% [capacity limit] only the driver will be. I think this is part of a much larger puzzle that restaurants are burdened with right now – many will not. ”

Knight said most restaurants were struggling to reach 50% capacity due to social distancing guidelines anyway – they generally didn’t have the space to keep more people six feet away. of each other. She said the decision to reduce capacity was not surprising given the recent increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, and the association supports the decision on behalf of public health and prevents further shutdowns.

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

Reese Oxner contributed to the report.

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