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  • May 21, 2020
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AUSTIN, TX — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Thursday prohibiting dine-in eating at restaurants as well as gatherings of more than 10 people, a public health disaster declaration amid the new coronavirus outbreak. In addition, he ordered schools and gyms to close by noon Friday through at least April 3.

The order effective at midnight Friday would still accommodate food delivery, takeout and curbside pickup — measures already being taken in cities implementing local-jurisdiction prohibitions on gatherings — but dining inside is banned for now to encourage social distancing.

Abbott’s actions lag behind those of other governors elsewhere in the United States who had already implemented similar bans. In the past few days, Abbott has been repeatedly asked about the lack of a statewide prohibition in the face of the growing COVID-19 threat, saying he would defer to local governments to make the call.

Lacking a statewide order until now, the mayors of Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and other citiies had already issued municipal orders to shut down bars and restaurants. In the state capital, for instance, Mayor Steve Adler on Tuesday joined Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt in issuing dual orders effectively closing down restaurants and bars to avert potential contagion. Across the state, restaurant operators have pivoted their business models to offer patrons options of takeout, delivery and curbside pickup — some for the first time — in efforts to generate sales and stay financially afloat during the moratorium.

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“We are doing this now today so we can get back to business as usual more quickly,” Abbott said. “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.”

The expanded prohibitions are in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a tactic of so-called social distancing to avert potential spread of the respiratory ailment through transmission of respiratory droplets. It’s believed that the more people practice social distancing, the greater the chances of “flattening the curve” of transmission of the the virus.

The COVID-19 virus is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that’s a close cousin to the SARS and MERS viruses that have sparked outbreaks in the past.

Abbott was asked about a perceived inaction on the mass closures front during an earlier news conference in Arlington on Wednesday. He suggested his earlier statewide disaster declaration set the stage for local governments to take action on their own: “Traditionally, the way disaster response works is that a governor will issue a disaster declaration, and that empowers local jurisdictions,” Abbott said at the time.

But in the next breath, he conceded the new coronavirus is a pandemic like none seen before in recent history while hinting it might require more-robust action to fight: “We’re dealing with something, however, that is not just statewide in scope, not just nationwide in scope, but is worldwide in scope. I will be providing an announcement tomorrow that addresses all of this.”

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Noting the many times he has had to react to past natural disasters in flood- and tornado-prone Texas — the Lone Star State leads the nation in such declarations, he added — Abbott said the customary response in the face of COVID-19 is not applicable.

“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.

Earlier this week, Abbott warned Texans that the COVID-19 outbreak is expected to grow exponentially in the coming days. “When I made my disaster declaration on Friday, since that time and today, the number of people who have tested positive have more than doubled,” he said at the time. “Since I declared my disaster declaration, the number of counties impacted have more than doubled. It is clear that this virus spread is occurring across the entire state of Texas.”

Abbott was flanked by other state leaders during Thursday’s news conference — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen among them — conspicuously gathered together in close proximity against advice of health officials’ calls for greater social distancing to avert the spread of COVID-19. Officials surrounding the governor took turns making remarks at Abbott’s direction, by and large praising the actions taken by the governor in dealing with the crisis so far.

The press conference took a personal turn when a reporter asked the governor if it was safe for him to be so exposed. Although much is unknown about the potency of COVID-19, it has tended so far to afflict older people and those with compromised immune systems. The governor was paralyzed below the waist when an oak tree fell on him while he was out jogging during a storm, leaving him reliant on a wheelchair ever since. As he has chronicled, he had two steel rods implanted in his spine before undergoing extensive rehabilitation.

Calling the reporter’s question as “insightful,” the governor acknowledged he would be limiting his activity — after already having traveled to Arlington, San Antonio and other parts of the state to host news conferences in apprising the public of the growing COVID-19 outbreak. “Because of the potential transmission of COVID 19, I will be reducing the times and situations that I will travel,” Abbott said. “If at all possible, I will be refraining from travel.”

But he assured of his otherwise good health: “I’m doing fine,” he said as an aide wrapped up the press conference after having solicited a final question from reporters. “I’m very healthy with no symptoms. As the victim of an emergency tragedy myself … this is a situation I feel very comfortable dealing with.”

Against the backdrop of Abbott’s latest news conference, local and state officials have been continually providing tallies illustrating the coronavirus toll so far. In the state capital of Austin where Abbott works, Austin Public Health recorded the number of positive tests for the illness at 23 — updating the numbers each day on their portal. Statewide, the Texas Department of State Health Services has logged the number of positive tests for the new coronavirus at 143, with 2,235 people so far to undergo testing. The death count so far is three.

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