Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is lifting more of the restrictions placed on businesses during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, allowing many businesses in most areas of the state to expand capacity. Bars, however, are still not permitted to reopen, the governor said.
The governor made the announcement Thursday afternoon, saying businesses in 19 regions of the state where COVID-19 hospitalizations are below 15% can expand capacity from 50% to 75%. Abbott said three parts of the state, the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and Victoria, remain in the danger zone and are not yet able to expand capacity.
The businesses included in the latest expansion of the governor's Open Texas plan include all retail, restaurants, offices, manufacturing, museums, libraries, and gyms effective Sept. 21.
Effective immediately, the governor said, all hospitals can return to providing ordinary, elective surgical procedures.
On Sept. 24, all nursing homes, assisted living centers and state-supported living centers can once again offer visitation options as long as the facility complies with health protocols and does not have any active COVID-19 cases.
According to the state's health and human services department, "under the new rules, residents will be allowed to designate up to two essential family caregivers who will be provided necessary training to allow them to safely go inside a facility for a scheduled visit, including in the resident’s room, to help ensure their loved one’s physical, social and emotional needs are being met. Designated caregivers will not be required to maintain physical distancing, but only one caregiver can visit a resident at a time."
"For general visitors who are not a designated essential caregiver, these updated emergency rules will allow approved nursing facilities scheduled indoor visitation with the use of plexiglass safety barriers to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Physical contact between residents and general visitors is not permitted. Facilities also must continue to meet all additional visitation requirements outlined in the emergency rules," the Texas HHS Department said in a statement.
Abbott warned that without vaccines, COVID-19 continues to pose a challenge and that most Texans remain susceptible to the virus. He credited Texans with wearing masks and taking other precautions to curb the spread and bring down the rate of infection.
“There are some Texans who want to fully open Texas 100% as if COVID is no longer a threat,” Abbott said from his office at the Texas Capitol, which has been closed to visitors for months. “The fact is COVID does still exist, and most Texans remain susceptible.”
In keeping bars shut for what is now two months and counting, Abbott said Texas must tread carefully. Aside from angry bar owners who have sued Abbott over lockdown orders, conservative activists and even some GOP lawmakers have railed against the governor of America’s biggest red state over a statewide mask mandate and business restrictions, and polls have shown his typically high approval ratings plummet.
Hospitalizations from COVID-19, meanwhile, continued to fall. On Sept. 1, there were 4,149 people hospitalized in the state with the virus. On Sept. 15, the most recent date for which data is available, there were 3,249 hospitalizations related to the virus. The high of 10,893 hospitalizations was reached on July 21.
Abbott appeared to hint last month that more restrictions could be lifted in the face of pressure from bar and restaurant owners, as well as from some conservative GOP activists.
Bars have remained closed in Texas since June, when a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths occurred. Abbott said Thursday bars will remain closed and are recognized nationwide as a place where the virus is spread. Abbott said the state will work with bars to make sure that when they are permitted to open they will have plans in place for helping them curb the spread of disease.
The hard-hit Texas border is one of the few regions excluded from the relaxed rules because hospitalization rates there remain high.
“We’ve crossed the six-month mark of this crisis, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the next few weeks will make the difference between tens of thousands of businesses surviving the economic fallout, or being forced to close their doors forever,” the Texas Restaurant Association said in a statement.
More than 14,400 people have died from COVID-19 in Texas, most of them this summer. In all, there have been more 674,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas.
The true number of cases is likely higher though because many people haven't been tested and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and a cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.