Governor Abbott is not imposing new restrictions on Texas businesses or changing course on re-opening plans for the state despite cases of the coronavirus exceeding one million. He isn’t allowing county officials to issue stronger measures than are in place now, either.
The governor’s approach tries to balance mitigating the latest wave of the coronavirus in the state while continuing to oversee the economic recovery in Texas. Abbott is resisting calls to further limit gatherings, re-close nonessential businesses, or issue stricter mask requirements. This doesn’t mean the state is wide open, it’s not. Statewide restrictions and mandates are in place.
MASKS: Face masks required inside commercial buildings and outside, when within 6 feet of others. Several exceptions apply, including for children under 10 and for people eating, exercising or attending church.
BARS, RESTAURANTS: Bars must close in regions where coronavirus patients take up at least 15 percent of the total hospital capacity. Restaurants must roll back to 50 percent of maximum occupancy from 75 percent. Patrons are required to be seated for indoor dining and drinking at all times.
GATHERINGS: Outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited unless first approved by local officials.
The governor is using hospital capacity numbers as guidance on restrictions instead of focusing on positivity rates because massive backlogs skewed the state’s rate for weeks this summer. State health officials say that problem is now fixed. Restrictions increase in regions that show increased hospitalizations, though health officials worry about using that as a measure for lockdowns. They reason that hospitalizations often provide a delayed measure of outbreaks because it usually takes several days for a patient to be hospitalized. Currently, the measure is seven continuous days of coronavirus patients filling at least 15 percent of all available beds in that area. Few other states use such a measurement for the virus outbreak.
Rebecca Fischer, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Texas A&M, said it’s important to consider multiple factors, including the rate at which people are testing positive for the virus, emergency room visits and infections at nursing and other long-term care facilities. And she said local governments need decision-making power to best respond to their situations, which may differ even within a given region.
“When I see county judges that are trying so hard to work toward the public health of their constituents and then are just cut off and told no, it kills me,” Fischer said. “Everybody in the public health realm is left scratching their head as to why that would be the case.”
The plan in Texas is to allow businesses to remain open, even in emerging hot spots, but to enforce and adjust restrictions in place. There is concern that restrictions are not being enforced at the local level, thus rising cases. In order for the mitigation of the coronavirus to work, Texas residents have to be vigilant in using social distancing, wearing face masks, and limiting the size of gatherings.
Under Abbott’s plan, restaurants can remain open for indoor dining even in regions that have surpassed 15 percent, but they have to roll back to 50 percent capacity from 75 percent. Bars are required to close, but those that previously reclassified as restaurants in order to get around the state’s earlier restrictions can stay open at the reduced capacity.
The governor’s spokeswoman, Renae Eze, suggested again that local officials are not properly enforcing restrictions already in place, including occupancy limits and a statewide mask mandate that Abbott issued this summer, amid a previous surge.
“The protocols proved effective in slowing the spread over the summer and containing COVID-19, and they can continue to work but only if they are enforced,” she said in an email.
Coronavirus fatigue has set in and people are relaxing around social distancing and wearing masks. More than 7,200 people were hospitalized on Monday, as reported by the state, which is nearly double the total a month ago. While hospitalizations have risen more slowly than happened this summer, they are now two-thirds as high as they were when cases peaked in late July.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is taking stronger measures in enforcing the face mask mandate in the city. During a news conference Monday he said that the wearing of masks is mandatory in Houston. Those who violate the mandate will be issued a citation, followed by a $250 fine if a second offense occurs.
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“Don’t invite COVID for Thanksgiving dinner,” Turner said. Like most other public officials in other states, he calls for only celebrating Thanksgiving with those in your household. Don’t invite family and friends over for Thanksgiving dinner this year. He voiced his concern that the holidays will bring new spikes in the virus outbreaks.
“As we approach the holiday season … Thanksgiving is upon us. … These traditional gatherings … are not the way to proceed,” he said. “This virus thrives on gatherings and will take advantage of holiday festivities to sicken our loved ones and further spread through our community.”
Harris County COVID-19 Threat Level System remains at a level 1 red, which means residents are strongly advised to limit outings and contact with others as much as possible. It’s also an indication that overall coronavirus breakouts are a concern for local health officials.
For the first time in its 71 year history, due to increasing positivity rates and hospitalizations, the mayor has cancelled Houston’s annual Thanksgiving parade. Instead of the parade, the city will hold large scale food distribution events. For example, on Saturday, Nov. 21 one meal prep kit per car will be distributed to those coming for help with food for the holiday. The meals can be cooked at home this year. And, instead of the annual super-feast events, the city will distribute larger food baskets — with as much as 60 to 80 pounds of food — to families on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.
It sounds like the mayor is going to cancel Christmas celebrations, too.