EL PASO, Texas -- Gov. Greg Abbott visited the Borderland Thursday to meet with local leaders to discuss the coronavirus situation after Texas surpassed 9,000 deaths and El Paso reported its deadliest day of the pandemic.
Afterwards, the governor briefly visited the Grand Candela memorial to honor the 23 victims of the Cielo Vista Walmart shooting.
He applauded the city's resilience and unity in the year since the Aug. 3, 2019 mass shooting and said such a tragedy can't ever be allowed to happen again.
But the bulk of governor's trip was devoted to discussions about Covid-19. It came as testing has dropped to the lowest levels since June and infection rates are on the rise, with the state's seven-day positivity rate climbing to more than 24%.
In response to Texas’ recently plummeting testing numbers and heightened rate of people testing positive, Abbott said in El Paso - just as he had during an appearance in Lubbock earlier in the day - that state health officials were “investigating” the trend and working to increase the number of Texans being tested for the virus.
“We have observed for the past couple of weeks a decline in the number of people stepping forward to get tested,” Abbott said, but he also emphasized that there are more than enough testing sites and equipment available in El Paso.
"We have far more daily testing capacity than there are tests being undertaken because we’re not having people step forward to be tested as we did before," he observed, encouraging Texans to seek testing for Covid-19 if needed.
The state topped 500,000 total virus infections this week, with over 17,000 of those to date occurring in El Paso County. But Abbott and other state officials say there is optimism amid declining hospitalization numbers both statewide and in El Paso.
However, Abbott added it remained too early to consider re-opening bars until the overall coronavirus metrics improve more significantly. He said Thursday that he would need to see the state’s positivity rate drop below 10% for a sustained period of time and for hospitalizations to continue decreasing.
Abbott once again emphasized his mandatory face mask order and social distancing as the only proven means to slow the rate of infection. During a press conference held at the city's 911 operations center, he commended El Pasoans for "embracing the use of masks and face coverings."
Additionally, the governor called on El Pasoans and Texans across the state to avoid large gatherings as the Labor Day weekend approaches.
"El Pasoans have proved time and again that we can overcome any challenge by working together," said Abbott. "By wearing a mask, practicing social-distancing, and washing your hands, Texas will defeat Covid-19 together."
As the new school year approaches, Abbott signaled it would largely be left up to local school officials to decide whether courses for the year will be done remotely, in-person or a combination of the two.
Regarding college football, Abbott applauded the decision made by the Big 12 Conference officials to allow college football this fall — directly impacting the University of Texas, who will host UTEP to kickoff its season.
He said he believes the Big 12 is taking “the right step.”
“They wanted to play and they became comfortable and satisfied with the level of safety protocols that were being put in place,” Abbott said. “So long as that remains the paramount focal point, then college sports can continue."
(The Texas Tribune contributed to this report.)