BEAUMONT, Texas -- Texas surpassed 500,000 confirmed coronavirus cases Tuesday as Gov. Greg Abbott suggested family and neighborhood gatherings are behind a sharp rise in the rate of positive tests, which has climbed to record levels just as schools are beginning to reopen across the state.
Abbott, during a visit to two southeast Texas communities, added that the state would need to get to a "positivity rate well below 10 percent and maintain that rate" before he would consider allowing bars to reopen.
The governor said more testing in Texas is likely after dropping off in recent weeks, a trend seen across the U.S. even as deaths mount. Texas has reported more than 1,400 new deaths over the past week, including 220 on Tuesday.
Health officials do say there are encouraging signs in Texas — particularly hospitalization levels that have dropped more than 30 percent since July’s peak.
In Beaumont, Abbott expressed optimism about the recent decline.
“The numbers are moving in the right direction but it is fair to say that hospital capacity for those with Covid-19 remains too high," he said.
But even as hospitalizations decline, other stats have raised concern about the spread of the virus and the state's response — most notably, infection rates that have been on a steady increase.
An average of 1 in 5 coronavirus tests in Texas have come back positive over the previous seven days, the highest level since the pandemic began.
“There’s a reason why this is happening, I believe, and that is some people feel if they’re just with family members” they can let their guard down, Abbott told reporters in Victoria, which had a surge of cases in July. “And that turns out not to be the case.”
In addition to warning against gatherings, Abbott said the main strategy to slow the spread of infection remains mask wearing and social distancing.
"The way to reduce hospitalizations is to reduce the number of people who test positive," he said. "The most important thing that I could convey today is that even though the numbers of Covid-19 have improved. Covid-19 still spreads across this region and across the country just as fast as it did in July."
Abbott also provided more insight on his decision to keep bars closed during the pandemic and what it would take to reopen them.
"If we were able to get to a positivity rate well below 10 percent and maintain that positivity rate, if we were able to get to a situation where we were back in that May time-frame of low hospitalizations because of Covid-19 and sustain those rates for a prolonged period of time, and if all operators of bars and restaurants and similar establishments were to follow the state protocols that were put into place from the very beginning and that required patrons of bars to not stand up, not walk around, not converse without masks, not go to the bar itself, but to remain seated, at a table in small gatherings, and be in situations where they are avoiding Covid-19, that could lead to the re-openings of those bars," Abbott explained.
The rising infection rate comes as testing in Texas has plummeted, with the seven-day average dropping below 30,000 on Tuesday for the first time since June, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. Abbott said higher testing in July was the result of “surge testing” in hot spots and nursing homes and suggested more would come, starting later this week.