LUBBOCK, Texas (Reuters) - Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s decision on Thursday to pause the rapid reopening of his state amid a spike in coronavirus cases tossed a political victory to his opponents but still keeps the lights on in every establishment from bars to bowling alleys.
Abbott’s decision follows weeks of withering criticism from Democratic Party leaders who accused the Republican governor of caving into big business by allowing economic activity to resume despite warnings from health officials to slow down.
His executive order paused elective surgeries in four hard-hit metropolitan counties, including Houston, where hospitalizations for COVID-19 are spiking and concerns are rising about the availability of bed space in intensive care units of hospitals.
But the order mandates no reversals of openings, with nearly every type of business having been allowed for weeks to be open at reduced capacities, and everything from Little League baseball games to yoga classes going ahead full steam.
In his defense, Abbott has repeatedly pointed out he governs a state that is larger than France and where the health impacts of the pandemic are varied. Of the state’s 254 counties, over 60 reported cases in the single digits as of Wednesday. But all of those areas have sharply felt the economic pain of shutting down.
“As we experience an increase in both positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, we are focused on strategies that slow the spread of this virus while also allowing Texans to continue earning a paycheck to support their families,” Abbott said in a statement.
The governor said he was now asking all Texans to wear a mask but is not making it mandatory — a decision that infuriates the Democratic leaders in the state’s biggest cities. Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin have all mandated masks - but cannot enforce the orders with fines or other penalties, barred from doing so by an earlier executive order from Abbott.
Houston’s Texas Medical Center, which has 21 hospitals, said that as of Wednesday ICU capacity was nearly full and it was expected to move into “surge” capacity on Thursday, but there was not an imminent danger of running out of beds in Houston.
Texas has had one of the biggest surges in new coronavirus infections in the country. The state has reported more than 5,000 new cases for three days in a row and hit successive records for COVID-19 hospitalizations for 13 consecutive days.
“Here in Houston we are headed towards a critical situation,” said Dr. Neil Gandhi, an emergency room physician and director of ERs at Houston Methodist’s 15 campuses. “As a state we may have prematurely declared victory.”
Gandhi said Texans were lulled after an early April spike in coronavirus cases in the state was quickly tamped out. He said he does not blame the reopening itself for the spike.
“The reopening has probably been a good thing,” he said. “The problem is the haphazard mask wearing, the lack of social distancing and sick people who have not stayed home.”
Texas - along with Florida, Georgia and other Sun Belt states - was on the vanguard of reopening their economies in early May.
Across most of Texas, life has largely returned to something near normal, with Little League baseball teams practicing, people seen shaking hands and large groups of people seen gathering in parks.
Besides allowing offices and factories to reopen, the state has permitted restaurants, bars, retail stores, gyms, personal care businesses and large venues such as movie theaters and bowling alleys to operate with capacity restrictions.
Abbott’s opponents have constantly criticized how quickly the state loosened coronavirus restrictions and vow to make political hay out of the situation come elections in November.
“Slowing down his reckless reopening plan is too little, too late for Governor Abbott,” said Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party. “Abbott’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic has led Texas into this mess. Texans will make his allies pay in November.”
Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Lisa Shumaker