Gov. Greg Abbott directed a state health agency Tuesday to enact new safety standards for child care centers during the coronavirus — more than a week after prior rules for the centers were made optional.
His order, which comes as new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge in the state, doesn’t immediately make clear what the standards will be. A spokesperson for the governor told The Texas Tribune that the state health commission will be releasing the guidelines Wednesday. A spokesperson for the Health and Human Services Commission said Tuesday evening that the emergency rules are still in development.
Abbott also gave local officials the green light Tuesday to impose more restrictions on public gatherings of more than 100 people. Previously, local officials could only regulate outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people.
“These are just some of the steps Texas will take to contain the rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations,” Abbott said in a statement. “Today’s proclamation and emergency rules will aid in that effort in two key ways: allowing restrictions on large gatherings where COVID-19 is easily spread and implementing a statewide standard of infection control for child care centers.”
Abbott said that both actions are based on data showing an increase in coronavirus cases stemming from both large gatherings and child care centers. The state reported 576 positive cases of the coronavirus — 382 staff members and 194 children — in child care facilities as of Tuesday. That’s up from 59 cases in mid-May.
As of mid-June, state-licensed child care centers were no longer required to comply with a list of safety precautions that had been in effect since mid-April. That meant centers could decide for themselves if they wanted to check staff temperatures, require parents to drop off their children outside or stop serving family-style meals, according to a previous notice from the state Health and Human Services Commission.
“Before today, they were recommendations. As of today, they are now requirements,” Abbott said during a Tuesday evening interview with KTVT-TV in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
The decision brought praise from advocates for children, some of whom had called for stricter standards in recent days.
“Depending on what these new rules require, Texas leaders will need to ensure that new standards are coupled with new supports,” said David Feigen, policy associate for Texans Care for Children. “We are eager to work with the Governor to develop a Texas plan to ensure child care providers can provide safe and quality care without increasing costs to Texas families.“
Earlier Tuesday, Texas reported over 5,000 new coronavirus cases — another record high. Throughout the week, the governor has struck a newly urgent tone about the rise in COVID-19 cases in the state, and he said at a press conference on Monday that the virus is “now spreading at an unacceptable rate in Texas.”
Abbott allowed the state’s stay-at-home order expire May 1 and since then has allowed most businesses in the state to at least partially reopen. Local officials have said that recent growth trends have been alarming. But as cases continue to climb, the governor has touted Texas’ hospital capacity as plentiful. Abbott said Monday that closing down the state again will “always be the last option.”
But in a TV interview with KBTX in Bryan, Abbott hinted that he could announce new restrictions or guidelines this week. He also urged Texans to “comprehend the magnitude of the challenge we are dealing with.”
“First, we want to make sure that everyone reinforces the best safe practices of wearing a mask, hand sanitization, maintaining safe distance, but importantly, because the spread is so rampant right now, there’s never a reason for you to have to leave your home. Unless you do need to go out, the safest place for you is at your home,” he said.
Texas medical centers have tracked a surge in hospitalizations two weeks after holiday weekends like Easter and Memorial Day. Now, some researchers say they’re concerned about the upcoming July 4 holiday.
Heading into the holiday weekend, Abbott again reiterated a need for personal responsibility and encouraged Texans to wear masks, wash their hands often and practice social distancing.
“As we face this challenge, there is no substitute for personal responsibility,” he said.
Patrick Svitek contributed reporting.