Gov. Greg Abbott struck a newly urgent tone Monday about rising coronavirus numbers in Texas but said "closing down Texas again will always be the last option."
"To state the obvious, COVID-19 is now spreading at an unacceptable rate in Texas, and it must be corralled," Abbott said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol in Austin.
However, he stopped short of introducing any new policies or pulling back on the reopening of Texas businesses, instead emphasizing long-established voluntary guidelines encouraging people to stay home if they can, use hand sanitizer, keep 6 feet of distance from others and wear masks. He also promised that Texas has strategies to address the rising numbers "without having to return to stay-at-home policies."
Those strategies include stepping up enforcement of guidelines in places like bars where large crowds have gathered, "surging testing in areas that may be hot spots" and working with hospitals to ensure they have capacity for coronavirus patients. He continued to describe hospital capacity as "abundant."
At the same time, Abbott held open the possibility that Texans could see new restrictions to get the virus under control. He said so while speaking in front of three poster boards showing the rapid rise of daily new cases, hospitalizations and the positivity rate, or the ratio of confirmed cases to tests.
"In each of these three categories, there’s been pretty much a doubling of the numbers in those three categories," Abbott said. "If we were to experience another doubling of those numbers over the next month, that would mean we are in an urgent situation where tougher actions will be required."
Texas has broken its record for the number of people hospitalized with the virus for 11 consecutive days. On Monday, that number was 3,711. Saturday saw the highest number of new daily reported cases yet — 4,430. The positivity rate, presented by the state as a seven-day average, has increased to 8.8%, on par with where it was in late April.
Case numbers and hospitalizations have been climbing for nearly a month in Texas, but Abbott has been measured in his response, noting that the state has plenty of hospital beds and blaming at least part of the increase in cases on efforts to step up testing in hot spots like prisons and nursing homes. In recent days, however, local and state health officials have also taken a more urgent tone about the rising numbers. Austin Mayor Steve Adler said over the weekend that officials will soon have to "choose between returning to sheltering at home or watching as our hospitals get overwhelmed and we suffer many preventable deaths."
Meanwhile, Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, predicted that Houston is on the brink of a disaster, based on the latest trends in increasing numbers.
Discussing the guidelines to slow the spread of the virus, Abbott was particularly emphatic about masks.
"I know that some people feel that wearing a mask is inconvenient or is like an infringement of freedom, but I also know that wearing a mask will help us to keep Texas open," Abbott said.
The Texas Medical Association echoed those comments after Abbott's press conference.
"As a physician, I’ve seen many patients reach that critical moment when the right actions make the difference between recovery or not. Texas is at that critical moment today. The governor told us all what we need to do. Wear a mask, Texas," said Dr. Diana L. Fite, president of the Texas Medical Association, in a statement. “We urge the governor to repeat his message over and over, everywhere he can, to anyone who will listen, through any medium possible.”
At the same time, Abbott continued to resist the idea of a statewide mask mandate, saying there needs to be flexibility for different parts of the vast state. He has restricted local governments from mandating that individuals wear masks but recently clarified that they can order business to require customers to wear masks.
Democrats panned Abbott's news conference for failing to offer any new solutions.
"Today, Gov. Abbott did a good job describing the COVID-19 crisis: Texas is seeing skyrocketing cases, rising hospitalizations and a doubling of our positivity rate," state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. "He set the stage to finally take much-needed strong and decisive action — and then, predictably, backed away without doing anything."
Turner and other Democrats said Abbott continues to ignore their concerns that the state is reopening too quickly. "Instead, the governor decided to listen to his fringe right-wing base over the advice of medical experts," state Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.
After Abbott's news conference, the governor received backup from state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, when it came to masks. Bonnen said in a statement he has been "increasingly infuriated with the so-called advocates" who have resisted wearing masks in the name of freedom, potentially endangering other liberties like being able to go back to work.
"It's time to mask up," Bonnen said. "It’s time to employ personal responsibility — a key tenet of ensuring liberty and freedom. It’s time to stand up to the mask naysayers who speak loudly but act irresponsibly as they destroy the liberty and freedom we ALL deserve."
Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, and the Texas Medical Association 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.