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Coronavirus in Texas

As Texas coronavirus hospitalizations rise, local officials can recommend precautions but they can't enforce many of them

Austin-area officials recommended Monday that businesses further limit operations. But an order from Gov. Greg Abbott doesn't let them enforce those suggestions.

A sign requiring masks is posted at Cosmic Cowboy on South Congress Avenue on Austin. May 8, 2020.

*Correction appended

For the fourth day in a row Monday, Texas reported record highs in hospitalizations from the new coronavirus. The Texas Department of State Health Services reported that there are 2,326 patients with COVID-19 in Texas hospitals — the highest number to date. Since Memorial Day, the state has also seen increases in the numbers of people testing positive for the virus.

The rise in hospitalizations has caused Austin and Travis County to move into stage 4 of their risk-level guideline. The previous stay-at-home order was due to expire on Monday, so they renewed and revised it until August 15.

Reopened businesses there “are strongly encouraged” to operate their indoor spaces at 25% capacity or less and to provide services that promote physical distancing, like curbside pickup, according to the Austin order. But these orders can’t be enforced because Gov. Greg Abbott has allowed Texas restaurants to operate at 75% capacity and other businesses to operate at 50% capacity.

Abbott allowed businesses to begin reopening in May after a statewide stay-at-home order expired. And as he announced those reopening plans, he issued a new order that overruled any local governments’ mandates that certain businesses stay closed or that people not wearing masks in public could be fined or penalized.

As the coronavirus first gripped the state in March, though, Abbott allowed local officials to make their own decisions about business closures and stay-at-home orders.

Texas has not yet faced a shortage of available hospital beds, the availability of which are seen as a key gauge for the ability to handle a potential surge in coronavirus cases. Abbott has said the hospitalization rate — the proportion of infected Texans who are requiring hospitalization — is also a benchmark he’s closely monitoring. He cited it as an encouraging metric as the state’s stay-at-home order expired at the end of April.

Still, Abbott told KLBK-TV on Monday that too many Texans in their 20s are taking COVID-19 too lightly and criticized them for not taking safety precautions, like wearing masks in public. A DSHS spokesperson told The Dallas Morning News that local health officials had reported outbreaks among people in their 20s but that it was “too soon to have hard data.”

The governor also said last week that there was “no real need” to scale back on the state’s phased plan to reopen businesses because Texas has “so many hospital beds available to anybody who gets ill.” Abbott and John Zerwas, vice chancellor for health affairs of the University of Texas System, plan to give an update on Texas’ hospital capacity at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

Sarah Champagne contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The University of Texas System and KUT have been financial supporters 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.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated what action Austin and Travis County officials took after coronavirus hospitalizations there rose. That increase prompted officials to to move to stage 4 of their risk-level guidance.

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