(AP) — Republican Gov. Greg Abbott shut down bars in Texas again on Friday and scaled back restaurant dining, the most dramatic reversals yet as confirmed coronavirus cases surge to record levels after the state embarked on one of America’s fastest reopenings.
Florida followed suit, also banning alcohol consumption at its bars after its daily confirmed coronavirus cases neared 9,000, a new record that is almost double the previous mark set just two days ago.
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 Friday surpassed 5,000 hospitalizations for the first time — a threefold increase from a month ago.
“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. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”
He also ordered rafting and tubing outfitters on Texas’ popular rivers to close, and required outdoor gatherings of 100 people or more to first seek approval from local governments.
It remains far from a full retreat, and critics swiftly protested that Abbott was still understating the severity of the spread and contradicting his own warnings.
On Sunday, Abbott will join Vice President Mike Pence at a Dallas megachurch for a “Celebrate Freedom” service indoors. Social distancing protocols are promised, but Dallas officials still worry the event will lead to more spread. It comes at the end of a week in which Abbott has urged people to stop going out, saying “there’s never a reason for you to have to leave your home.”
The Texas GOP is also pressing ahead with a July convention in Houston and won’t require face coverings even though Abbott, the party leader, says everyone in Texas should wear one. And on Monday, early in-person voting begins in Texas for primary runoffs that Abbott postponed in March, saying at the time that holding the election as scheduled would “threaten the health and safety of many Texans.”
At that time, Texas had but a few dozen reported cases. On Thursday, the number of hospitalizations soared past 4,700, a doubling in under two weeks.
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,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat who is the county’s top official, said. “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.”
Texas reached a record high positive tests of 5,996 on Thursday. The state’s rolling infection rate was at nearly 12%, a level not seen since the state was in a broad lockdown. In May, Abbott set anything over 10% as a “red flag” in his reopening plan, which he says was backed by White House.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the COVID-19 virus without feeling sick.
Under the newest rollbacks, restaurant dining rooms must scale back to half capacity starting Monday. 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 also continued to press Abbott for a statewide mask policy. “It’s to ensure our restaurants aren’t law enforcement,” said Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the organization.
Abbott is not the only governor backpedaling following a swift reopening. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, also a Republican, is also telling residents to stay home and on Thursday declaring the state “on pause” as hospitals accelerate toward capacity.
The Florida agency that governs bars announced the ban on Twitter just minutes after the Department of Health reported 8,942 new confirmed cases, topping the previous record of 5,500 set Wednesday.
State officials have attributed much of the new outbreak to young adults flocking to bars after they reopened in most of the state three weeks ago, with many of them ignoring social distancing restrictions aimed at lowering the virus's spread.
Bars, like restaurants, were supposed to limit patrons to 50% of their normal capacity, under the state's emergency orders. Patrons had to sit at tables, with groups 6 feet (2 meters) apart. No congregating at the bar or on the dance floor was permitted.
The new order prohibits any establishment that makes more than 50% of its revenue from alcohol sales from serving alcohol for consumption on site. Bars are still permitted to sell alcohol in sealed containers for consumption offsite. Restaurants that primarily sell food can still serve alcohol to customers seated at tables.
Business and Professional Regulations Secretary Halsey Beshears said he issued the order because too many bars and patrons were breaking the rules, overwhelming his department’s inspectors.
“This was more than we could keep up with,” Beshears said.
He said people got tired of being cooped up and maybe thought the threat of coronavirus had lessened because news coverage shifted to the protests caused by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
“People in general just wanted to get out and experience a normalcy,” he said. He said there is no timetable for rescinding the order.
“Sadly, 90% are getting it right. It’s the other 10% that are ruining it for everybody,” he said.
The state had suspended the license of a popular Orlando bar near the University of Central Florida earlier this week after at least 13 employees and 28 patrons tested positive. The bar may have been linked to 150 cases, state health officials said at the time.
More than 24,000 new cases have been reported statewide since Saturday, more than a fifth of the 111,724 cases confirmed since March 1. The death toll climbed Friday to 3,366, a one-day increase of 39.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday that he still doesn't plan to issue a statewide order requiring masks. He said that is best handled at the county and city level. Miami, other cities and several counties including Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Orange are requiring masks in public places.
DeSantis said the median age for people testing positive has dropped from in the 60s early in the outbreak to 33 now. He said that has helped decrease the fatality rate — the disease hits older people harder — but may be increasing the spread as younger adults are more likely to be asymptomatic and to congregate. He urged younger people to wear masks to avoid spreading the disease to their older family members and others who have underlying medical conditions.
“While this may not be affecting you negatively, you can pass it along to other folks,” he said.
Dr. Rajiv Bahl, who works in an Orlando emergency room, said he has seen more patients between the ages of 20 and 40 with COVID-19 symptoms over the past few weeks. Prior to that he had mostly seen older people.
State officials have said the youth of the newly infected may be why the rising infection total hasn’t been accompanied by an increase in deaths, which have averaged about 35 per day for a month. Bahl said treatment methods are also improving.
“There are greater opportunities today for better outcomes, especially with better understanding of the disease process,” he said.
Tampa bartender Colleen Corbett said she is worried about being unemployed again, but thinks the state’s action is “the right move since no one could follow the guidelines and everyone was getting sick.” Most of her bartender friends have been infected and she is awaiting test results.
Corbett, 30, said the two bars where she works have been packed. She said staff weren't required to wear masks and almost no customers did.
“It was like they forgot there was a pandemic or just stopped caring,” Corbett said.
Bruce Owens, 66, wearing a mask as he walked Friday in St. Petersburg, said he isn't surprised by the state's skyrocketing case numbers. He blamed it on state officials.
“They’ve handled it extremely poorly,” he said. “They haven’t really listened to the experts.”