64ºF

Gov. Greg Abbott orders Texans to avoid groups of 10; closes bars, gyms and restaurants for dine-in

Gov. Greg Abbott declares a statewide emergency amid new cases of COVID-19 in the state on March 13, 2020 at the state capitol. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)
Gov. Greg Abbott declares a statewide emergency amid new cases of COVID-19 in the state on March 13, 2020 at the state capitol. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday took sweeping action to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus across Texas, issuing an executive order that will close restaurants and schools, among other things.

During a news conference at the state Capitol, Abbott announced an executive order that will limit social gatherings to 10 people, prohibit eating and drinking at restaurants and bars while still allowing takeout, close gyms, ban people from visiting nursing homes except for critical care and temporarily close schools. The executive order is effective midnight Friday through midnight April 3, Abbott said.

The executive order reflects federal guidance that came out earlier this week.

"Working together, we must defeat COVID-19 with the only tool that we have available to us — we must strangle its expansion by reducing the ways that we are currently transmitting it," Abbott said, flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. "We are doing this now, today, so that we can get back to business as usual more quickly."

Abbott's announcement is a remarkable shift after he spent days deferring to local officials on virus-related issues such as business and school closures. But he said Texas' historical approach to disaster response was being tested by a rapidly evolving situation, noting that, for example, there were 39 confirmed cases in Texas when he made his initial disaster declaration six days ago and now there are more than 140 cases.

"The traditional model that we have employed in the state of Texas for such a long time so effectively does not apply to an invisible disease that knows no geographic and no jurisdictional boundaries and threatens the lives of our fellow Americans across the entire country," Abbott said.

Abbott also announced that state health commissioner John Hellerstedt declared a public health disaster earlier Thursday. Abbott said it is his understanding that the last time such a declaration was made in Texas was 1901.

His announcement was not entirely unexpected. Asked Wednesday if he was considering statewide restrictions on bars and restaurants, Abbott said he was and would have an announcement Thursday but first wanted to get input from local officials.

Abbott is set to address the outbreak again at 7 p.m., when he will participate in a virtual town hall hosted by Nexstar in Austin. The event will air live on 14 Nexstar stations across the state as well as online.