AUSTIN, Texas – Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday allowed bars to begin reopening in Texas for the first time since June, ending a lockdown that began during a massive coronavirus outbreak that became one of the deadliest in the nation.
However, the move doesn't allow Texas bars to fully reopen, nor everywhere. Dallas and Houston leaders quickly made clear they would still keep bars sidelined, pointing to recent upticks in cases and hospitalizations. And bars that are given local permission to open starting next week can only do so at 50% capacity.
Texas this week surpassed 16,000 virus deaths and is closing in on 800,000 confirmed cases. New cases in Texas have dramatically fallen since summer and the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations has leveled off around 3,200 — three times lower than July’s grim peak, but also a patient load that has stopped falling in the last two weeks.
It is also roughly the same number of patients Texas reported in mid-June, when cases began to skyrocket and Abbott retreated from one of America’s most aggressive reopenings, shuttering bars for a second time. He later expressed regret over letting bars back in business so quickly.
But Abbott said safety protocols and testing are now better, adding that Texas would have an additional 100,000 rapid-result tests daily starting next week. He did not elaborate in an an announcement that was not open to the press, and was instead made in a recorded video posted to Facebook.
“Even with more students returning to school and more gatherings like football games, Texans have show that we can contain the spread of COVID,” Abbott said in the video.
Last month, Abbott began relaxing some coronavirus restrictions for the first time since a summer surge of cases hammered Texas, overwhelming hospitals in Houston and along the hard-hit border with Mexico. Other states are now seeing a resurgence in cases, including Wisconsin, where health officials announced Wednesday that a field hospital will open next week at the state fairgrounds near Milwaukee.
Nationwide, about 30,000 coronavirus patients are hospitalized, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
Abbott’s handling of the pandemic has come under fire not just from angry bar owners but also the right wing if his own party. Conservative activists, who have driven the Texas GOP’s agenda for years, have filed multiple lawsuits accusing Abbott of overreaching in his lockdown orders and issuing a statewide mask mandate.
Abbott, who for months has rejected calls to give local officials the power to impose tougher COVID-19 restrictions, made bar reopenings conditional on the approval of county leaders. Texas' largest counties are controlled by Democrats, many of whom have accused Abbott of reopening the state too quickly.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat and one of Abbott's sharpest critics during the pandemic, said he would not move to reopen bars.
“It's understandable that the public would falsely believe that the numbers are going down when the Governor is reopening businesses and therefore people have loosened their guard for their home gatherings,” Jenkins said.
Leaders in Austin were also noncommittal, saying they would confer with local health officials. Hundreds of Texas bars have added kitchens or food service during the lockdown as a way of getting around the closure order.
An industry group for Texas bar owners blasted the move, accusing Abbott of punting the tough decision on bar reopenings to counties.
“Abbott has forced 254 other people to make this decision for him with no guideposts as to how to make that decision. He's officially passed the buck,” the Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance said in a statement.