AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday took more countermeasures to stem a tide of coronavirus infections, as he closed bars, ordered restaurants to return to 50% capacity, shut river-rafting outfits and gave local officials more control over large gatherings ahead of the Fourth of July holiday.
It was a big pivot from Monday, when he said retrenchment "will always be the last option."
On Friday, Abbott called the moves "targeted, measured directives." He stressed the state must move forcefully to get the current spread of COVID-19 under control.
Abbott noted he always said that if positivity rates again exceeded 10%, he'd consider that a "red flag" that required action to limit spread of virus — even if meant halting or rolling back his reopening of businesses and public activities.
The positivity rate, which is the percentage of coronavirus tests administered that produce a positive result, dwindled to under 5% last month, after a high in mid-April of 13.86%. On Wednesday, the seven-day average positivity rate was 11.76%.
Abbott said public health authorities have linked businesses covered by his Friday order to rising infections.
"At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars," he said in a written statement.
Bars were to be shut at noon Friday. They may remain open for delivery and takeout, including for alcoholic beverages, as long as that's authorized by the state's bar regulator.
Restaurants may remain open for dine-in service, but at a capacity not to exceed 50% of total listed indoor occupancy, starting Monday.
Rafting and tubing businesses must close at noon Friday. That includes "rental of rafts or tubes and transportation of people for the purpose of rafting or tubing," according to Abbott's new executive order.
Also, outdoor gatherings of 100 or more people must be approved by local governments, starting immediately, though local officials could make certain exceptions.
As was the case in earlier Abbott orders, the outdoor crowd maximum doesn't apply to religious services, youth camps, sporting events and amusement parks.
"The gathering is prohibited unless the mayor of the city in which the gathering is held, or the county judge — in the case of a gathering in an unincorporated area — approves of the gathering, and such approval can be made subject to certain conditions or restrictions not inconsistent with this executive order," says Abbott's Friday order.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins announced his intentions at a Thursday afternoon news conference where he pleaded with Abbott for a swifter response to a new wave of coronavirus infections that have gripped the state and nation. "If we're given the authority to keep people safe and health we're going to do it," Jenkins said.
"The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health," he said. "We want this to be as limited in duration as possible."
Hospitals in Houston, Dallas and other urban areas are reporting a surge in admissions of COVID-19 patients.
On Thursday, there were 4,738 coronavirus patients in Texas hospitals — the 14th straight day of record hospitalizations. There were 5,996 new cases, another record, with 47 deaths — the highest total since May 20.
Abbott was among the first wave of governors to begin lifting coronavirus restrictions on businesses, before the state had hit its own goals for testing or contact tracing. Both are key pieces of Abbott's plan to contain the spread.
While Abbott began reopening the state over the past two months, Texas never pushed the virus into decline.
Instead, disease rates either stayed flat or increased slightly, but never at a steep rate. Last week, the virus took off.
That was predictable, experts said, given trends in other states.
"If you continue to go along with a lot of circulating cases, this virus eventually does take off and that's what happened," said David Rubin, a physician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, whose team has been tracking and predicting the virus' spread in counties across the country.
It's unclear whether Abbott's moves to dial back reopening this week will be enough. Experts say it takes two weeks for any changes in social distancing or masking measures to have an effect on case rates and hospitalizations.
"Packing into restaurants and bars without masks is a perfect recipe" for the virus to take off, Rubin said.
In recent days, Abbott moved from telling Texans they must learn to coexist with the virus to saying it's time to stay home again whenever possible.
Last week, the Republican governor ordered a crackdown on bars not forcing patrons to observe social distancing and the state's protocols for reopening such establishments. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has suspended 17 bars' licenses after increased spot checks as part of "Operation Safe Open."
More enforcement operations will occur this weekend, commission spokesman Chris Porter said Friday.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, on a call with Texas Democrats on Friday, criticized Abbott — and Trump for the surge in cases.
Jenkins said that "early on, the governor refused to act" and Texas' urban counties took the lead.
"And we had the situation going in the right direction, working with business and healthcare on common sense requirements for businesses that were open," he said. "In the beginning of May, our governor said, 'Hold my beer and let me take this over.' ... The doctors told us at the time, and told anyone who would listen, this will be a disaster. And it has been."
Jenkins urged Abbott to enact a statewide masking policy.
"Once again, the governor is slow to act. He is now being forced to do the things that we've been demanding him to do for the last month and a half," he said. "And unless he moves quickly to a statewide masking policy, and to statewide requirements similar to the ones that we saw in Dallas, Harris and other counties back before he took this over and frankly screwed it up, then we will continue to see more and more people are getting sick and won't be able to reverse this second wave."
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said he was glad to see the new restrictions but also asked the governor to go further and consider a statewide mask requirement.
Democrats were critical of Abbott, with state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, saying that Abbott's actions over the past two days may be too late to stop the latest surge.
"I'm glad that Gov. Abbott has finally taken a needed step by closing bars today," Turner wrote on Twitter. "This will help, but because the Governor has waited so long to act, it is going to be difficult to put this genie back in the bottle."
Abbott also drew more intense fire from some in his own party.
Bedford GOP Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a stalwart in the Texas Freedom Caucus, joined it in sending Abbott a letter on April 24 that urged reopening and spoke darkly about spikes in calls to mental health hotlines about suicide and substance abuse because of joblessness. Abbott soon thereafter obliged. Stickland and some others, though, have hit the governor for moving too slowly — and overreaching on COVID-19 orders.
On Friday, Stickland, who is retiring after four terms, said Abbott's governorship is beyond salvaging.
"Seen everything I need to see," he tweeted. "@GregAbbott — TX has shown us exactly who he is, a traitor to liberty and our constitution. He must be replaced."
While it's unclear how long the order closing bars will be in effect, the TRA said it plans to start working with bars to develop another plan to reopen in a manner that's safe for employees and customers, whenever bars are allowed to reopen.
TRA leaders said they understand the decision to reduce restaurant capacity back to 50%, though they hope they're not asked to roll back to 25% or close all together.
"We don't want to get there," Knight said. "Please, please support your local restaurants. They need you now more than ever."
Restaurants will continue to find creative ways to keep business going such as through to-go cocktail kits or meal packages, but it's hard to plan a business model around a pandemic, said Kelsey Erickson Streufert, TRA vice president of government affairs and advocacy.
"The biggest concern right now is that we can't see the bottom," Streufert said.
On Friday, Abbott said containment's only possible if each Texan makes some sacrifices and complies with good hygiene and public-health recommendations.
"We can only slow the spread if everyone in Texas does their part," he said. "Every Texan has a responsibility to themselves and their loved ones to wear a mask, wash their hands, stay six feet apart from others in public and stay home if they can. I know that our collective action can lead to a reduction in the spread of COVID-19 because we have done it before, and we will do it again."