Gov. Greg Abbott took sweeping statewide action against the new coronavirus Thursday as he estimated that the number of Texas cases will likely skyrocket to the tens of thousands in two weeks.
That would be a dramatic jump from the 161 positive tests the state has reported so far but consistent with officials’ warnings over the past several days that the case total will shoot up as the state ramps up testing.
“This is a very rapidly spreading disease, but it’s one that we are prepared to respond to,” Abbott said during a virtual town hall Thursday night, hours after he took far-reaching steps to contain the spread of the virus across Texas, closing restaurants and schools, among other things.
During a news conference Thursday afternoon at the state Capitol, Abbott announced an executive order that will limit social gatherings to 10 people, prohibit eating and drinking at restaurants and bars while still allowing takeout, close gyms, ban people from visiting nursing homes except for critical care, and temporarily close schools. The executive order is effective midnight Friday through midnight April 3, Abbott said.
The executive order reflects federal guidance that came out earlier this week.
“Working together, we must defeat COVID-19 with the only tool that we have available to us — we must strangle its expansion by reducing the ways that we are currently transmitting it,” Abbott said, flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. “We are doing this now, today, so that we can get back to business as usual more quickly.”
Abbott’s announcement is a remarkable shift after he spent days deferring to local officials on virus-related issues such as business and school closures. Before Thursday, Texas’ biggest cities had acted on their own to stop the spread of the virus locally, with places like Houston and Dallas already ordering restaurants and bars closed.
But Abbott said Texas’ historical approach to disaster response was being tested by a rapidly evolving situation, noting that, for example, there were 39 confirmed cases in Texas when he made his initial disaster declaration six days ago, and now there are more than 140 cases.
Detailing the executive order earlier Thursday, Abbott said that while dining in at restaurants is prohibited, takeout is “highly encouraged.”
Abbott also announced that state health commissioner John Hellerstedt declared a public health disaster earlier Thursday. Abbott said it is his understanding that the last time such a declaration was made in Texas was 1901.
While schools will be temporarily closed, Abbott said at the news conference that education should continue online or through other methods. He said at the town hall that the temporary closure “applies to any type of educational institution,” though there could be exemptions for places on college campuses such as food courts or laboratories. Asked at the town hall if there was any hope of schools reopening before the end of May, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said the state needs to wait and see how the virus spreads ahead of the order’s April 3 expiration before determining whether a longer closure is necessary.
At the news conference, Abbott emphasized that the executive order is not a shelter-in-place order, saying that Texans can still go to places like the grocery store or bank and that “all critical infrastructure” remains open. Employers can keep their workplaces open but should only use “essential employees” and allow others to work remotely, Abbott said.
The executive order could be extended beyond April 3 depending on the status of the outbreak in Texas, Abbott said.