Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday told Texans to stay at home for the next month unless they are taking part in essential services and activities, announcing a heightened statewide standard to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. He also announced that schools would remain closed until at least May 4.
During a news conference at the Texas Capitol, Abbott declined to call his latest executive order a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order, arguing such labels leave the wrong impression and that he wants Texans to know, for example, they can still go to the grocery store. But in an interview afterward, he said "it's a fact" that the executive order nonetheless brings Texas up to speed with states that have issued orders with those labels.
"States that have adopted 'stay-at-home' policies or even some that use 'shelter-in-place' are very close to ours, which is, if you had to put a label on it, it would be 'essential services and activities only,'" Abbott said, drawing parallels between Texas and even New York, the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. "If you’re not engaged in an essential service or activity, then you need to be at home for the purpose of slowing the spread of COVID-19."
The state has outlined a list of more than a dozen sectors that provide essential services that comply with Abbott's order, which is largely aligned with federal guidance on the issue. Those include health care, energy, food and critical manufacturing. Texas' list adds religious services, which are not included in federal guidance.
The order goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday and lasts until April 30, aligning it with the new end date that President Donald Trump announced Monday for social-distancing guidelines.
The order supersedes one that Abbott issued March 19 that limited social gatherings to 10 people, among other things. The new order narrows that standard significantly, asking Texans to "minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household."
In other instances, the new order extends guidance in the previous one, including the prohibition against eating in at bars and restaurants. The latest also extends until May 4 the school shutdown, which was initially set to end midnight Friday with the expiration of the governor's prior order.
In using terms like "minimize," the new order's language stops short of explicitly banning nonessential activity. But Abbott made clear he expects all Texans to adhere to the guidance or face criminal punishment — and that there is only wiggle room in the language to account for potential "exceptions to the rule."
"You never know what the exception would be, like let's say there's some emergency where you have to go do something or whatever the case may be," he said. "And you don't want to get people subject to being in violation of a law for a lack of clarity."
At the news conference and in the interview, Abbott chafed at labels such as "shelter-in-place" and "stay-at-home," suggesting they are misnomers. In the interview, Abbott said he had asked his legal research team to look into the true meaning of "shelter-in-place," and the team came back with guidance from the American Red Cross that advises people to remain indoors during an emergency. Abbott said that guidance does not "have top, side or bottom any relationship whatsoever to the concept" of the orders that are being labeled "shelter-in-place."
In any case, for over a week, Abbott has resisted calls for a statewide order of the type, deferring to local officials. In recent days, they have acted to put most of the Texas population under such orders.
Hours before Abbott's news conference, the leaders of the Texas Hospital Association and Texas Nurses Association released a letter to the governor saying the "time has come" for a statewide stay-at-home order. Last week, 65 out of 67 Texas House Democrats called on Abbott to issue such an order.
After Abbott's announcement Tuesday, state Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, issued a statement saying the governor's news conference "was confusing at times, but we believe it amounts to a step in the right direction."
"By ordering all activity — apart from seeking or providing essential services — to cease or be conducted via telework, Gov. Abbott has essentially created a statewide stay-at-home order," said Turner, of Grand Prairie. "This can serve as a good baseline for counties that had none in place, even if it is less than what other counties have already done."
Other Democrats had a harsher reaction to Abbott’s news conference, with the state party saying his “mismanaged response to the coronavirus epidemic has endangered Texans.”
Turner and others did express concern about Abbott's decision to include religious worship as an essential service, leaving open the possibility of large gatherings at churches. At the news conference, Abbott encouraged churches to conduct their services remotely but said that if they must meet in person, they should follow the federal social-distancing guidelines.
"I’m unaware of a church that would want its constituents, its parishioners, to be exposed to COVID-19, and I think there’s enough public information right now for them to be aware of the practices that are needed to make sure that their members don’t contract COVID-19," Abbott said in the interview.
There has been controversy, particularly in the Houston area, over church closures in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Pastors are in court challenging a stay-at-home order that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced a week ago that restricts churches to online-only services.
To that end, Abbott's latest executive order overrides "any conflicting order issued by local officials," including those related to religious services. At the news conference, Abbott said local officials "still have flexibility to impose standards that they consider to be more strict" — as long as they do not conflict with his latest executive order.
There are at least 3,266 coronavirus cases in Texas, including 41 deaths, according to the most recent figures from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The cases are spread across 122 of the state's 254 counties.
There have been 42,992 tests done in Texas, according to the latest numbers.
"We’ve come too far to falter now,” Abbott said at the news conference, where he was joined by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. "We have made tremendous strides, but we have not yet reached our destination. … Together, we will persevere through this for another month."
Disclosure: The Texas Hospital Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.