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Texas attributes record-high coronavirus cases to bars, beaches and a data backlog in Harris County

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A health care worker talks to a potential COVID-19 patient at a drive-through testing site at an Austin Emergency Center on Wednesday. Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

For the fourth time in five days, Texas reported a record number of new coronavirus cases Saturday as the virus continues to surge in one of the first states that allowed businesses to reopen after a weeks-long shutdown meant to slow the pandemic.

State health officials credit some of the 4,430 new cases to a data entry backlog in Harris County, which accounted for about 1,200 of the recorded illnesses. But Texas Department of State Health Services spokesperson Chris Van Deusen said part of the increase is also attributable to Texans gathering at bars, beaches, rivers and other social gatherings like graduation parties. He also said that people testing positive in prisons and at meatpacking plants continues to contribute to the growing number of cases.

The number of Texans hospitalized with the virus — 3,247 people — also set a record for the ninth consecutive day Saturday. More than 2,100 Texans have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. But the true death toll is certainly higher than the state's official count.

Gov. Greg Abbott said one of the key metrics he would watch as he allowed businesses to reopen was the infection rate, or the ratio of positive cases to tests conducted. Public health experts want the daily infection rate to remain below 6%. But Texas' seven-day average infection rate has been above 6% for more than two weeks.

Still, Abbott earlier this week said there was “abundant” space in hospitals for people getting sick with the virus. Van Deusen said that as of Saturday, there are 13,701 available beds available, compared with 13,571 a week ago.

"We’re staying in close contact with hospitals on their situations, their plans for adding beds and staff, and making plans in case there is a need to use other facilities for people who need care for COVID-19 but don’t need to be in a hospital" he said.

A spokesperson for Abbott's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday

Van Deusen said the state has also dramatically increased testing with the addition of mobile testing sites, adding that there are more than 3,000 contract tracers in the state who are working to identify hotspots and where community spread is most common. That’s short of Abbott’s goal of having 4,000 tracers by June 1, but Van Deusen said state and local jurisdictions are still adding to those totals.

“We’re still looking to ramp up because we think there is going to be more work to do,” he said.

Van Deusen also said that while the DSHS gives the governor’s office guidance on the coronavirus response, the decision to pause or even scale back business reopenings is up to the governor.

The state has taken some proactive measures to limit contagion since reopening began last month. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission said that five bars have been temporarily closed for violating reopening guidelines, which allow restaurants to operate at 75% capacity and bars at 50%.

“We warned businesses TABC will have no tolerance for breaking the rules, and now, some bars are paying the price,” executive director Bentley Nettles said in a statement. "I hope other establishments will learn from these suspensions.”

The first infraction forces a 30-day closure, and a second violation would mean a 60-day shutdown. Meanwhile, some bars and restaurants are closing voluntarily after employees have tested positive for the virus. Owners are balancing feedback from staff members, customers and officials as they weigh such decisions.

Abbott and health officials have attributed part of the recent surge to people in their 20s, whom leaders say may not be taking social distancing and other guidelines seriously. On Saturday, Dallas County officials said that almost half of all new infections reported after June 1 have been from people aged 18 to 39.

As the pandemic began to sweep Texas in March, Abbott left it up to local governments to respond to the virus however they saw fit and said he was confident that cities would make the best decisions for their communities.

Then, he changed his mind and blasted local officials in Dallas and Houston for what he and other leaders called overzealous enforcement of COVID-19 regulations.

At an April press conference where he talked about plans for reopening the state, Abbott took away local officials' ability to issue fines for violating coronavirus-related orders. Since then, local officials have asked for the ability to enforce orders that mandate people wear face masks in public.

After Abbott didn’t budge, local officials across the state began mandating that businesses require customers to wear face masks, which the governor said was allowable. Bexar, Travis, Hidalgo, Cameron, El Paso, Harris and Dallas are among counties that have issued orders mandating businesses require face coverings or risk fines.

But local officials have said Abbott's sending mixed message by encouraging face masks, but not requiring them with an order. Yet some fellow Republicans have criticized Abbott for allowing businesses to require face masks.