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.
"The traditional model that we have employed in the state of Texas for such a long time so effectively does not apply to an invisible disease that knows no geographic and no jurisdictional boundaries and threatens the lives of our fellow Americans across the entire country," Abbott said.
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.
Abbott ended the action-packed day with the hourlong town hall, which was hosted by Nexstar in Austin and broadcast live on 14 stations across the state as well as online. In addition to making the estimate of likely tens of thousands of Texas cases in two weeks, Abbott revealed at the town hall that he has been tested for the virus and that the results came back negative.
Detailing the executive order earlier Thursday, Abbott said that while dining in at restaurants is prohibited, takeout is "highly encouraged." At the town hall, he added that that restaurants that violate the order could lose their licenses to operate, warning that "literally their life as an ongoing business is on the line." As for whether takeout could ultimately be banned, Hellerstedt said at the town hall that the state is keeping its options open, but the "situation as we see it right now doesn't call for that."
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.
His announcement was not entirely unexpected. Asked Wednesday if he was considering statewide restrictions on bars and restaurants, Abbott said he was and would have an announcement Thursday but first wanted to get input from local officials.
The GOP governor had received increasing scrutiny for not moving sooner to enact statewide rules.
"Instead of following the lead of other states and the guidelines recommended by the CDC, Governor Abbott continuously passed this health crisis off to local and county officials," Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement.
Abbott got backup Thursday from Patrick and Bonnen, who said they were "here today to show complete support and unity of the state leadership of Texas."
Hours later at the town hall, Abbott addressed a wide range of outbreak-related issues beyond those covered by the executive order. Discussing the economic downturn spurred by the outbreak, Abbott noted the state's savings account, known as the rainy day fund, has billions of dollars that lawmakers can act to "tap into at the appropriate time, but the appropriate time will be when we know the full extent of the challenge that we're dealing with." In the meantime, Abbott also noted he controls a disaster relief fund that he can access immediately to respond to the virus.
For lawmakers to dig into the rainy day fund, Abbott would have to call a special session of the Legislature, which is not scheduled to meet again until January. Asked about the possibility of a special session, Abbott said at the town hall that "every option remains on the table," but there will be no need for a special session if every Texan does his or her job in the coming weeks to curtail the spread of the virus.
The May 26 runoff elections are another lingering uncertainty. Abbott has previously signaled they could be disrupted by the outbreak, and he said at the town hall that his office could have guidance as soon as Friday about the fate of the elections.
The town hall also featured a discussion of Texas' refusal to expand Medicaid under Abbott, and he held firm in light of the outbreak, saying he was not reconsidering his opposition.
"The response here is one where we want to make sure regardless of whether or not you're on Medicaid, regardless of whether or not you have access to health care insurance ... if you have COVID-19, you're gonna be able to get tested for it and get treatment for it," Abbott said.