AUSTIN, Texas -- Gov. Greg Abbott shut down bars in Texas again on Friday and scaled back restaurant dining to 50% capacity, 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 for two weeks has set records for hospitalizations on a near daily basis.
“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. "The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health."
Bars closed 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.
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 continued to press Abbott for a statewide face mask policy.
Abbott on Friday also ordered rafting and tubing outfitters on Texas’ popular rivers to close, and required outdoor gatherings of 100 people or more to seek approval from local governments.
The governor's critics at the local level said they were grateful for his decision to scale back, but added that it came too late and was the latest example of a mismanaged response from the start. 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,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. “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.”
The governor had 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 re-opening 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 and Texas has seen its rate of positive tests reach 10.4%, its highest level since mid-April when the state was still under stay-at-home orders.
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.