Texas Governor Urges Masks as Virus Cases Rise

By | June 24, 2020

Texas’ surging coronavirus numbers will not slow the state’s reopening, according to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who has prescribed an emphasis on face coverings and social distancing to curtail sobering trends, including hospitalization rates that have doubled since Memorial Day.

On June 22, Texas reached an 11th consecutive day of record COVID-19 hospitalizations. And while he didn’t rule out re-imposing lockdown orders in Texas — describing it as a last resort — Abbott said the virus did not require choosing “between jobs and health.” He instead emphasized long-established voluntary measures, such as staying at home if possible.

On June 23, Abbott expanded the ability of mayors and county judges to impose restrictions on outdoor gatherings of over 100 people. Previously, this applied only to outdoor gatherings over 500 people. He also directed the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) to enact emergency rules that provide strict health and safety standards and procedures related to COVID-19 for child care centers in Texas.

Wearing a mask has become a political statement during the pandemic throughout the U.S., and Abbott is not requiring them in public, even as big cities last week began racing to impose mask mandates on businesses. On June 22, Nueces County, home to Corpus Christi, became the latest Texas county to order that businesses require employees and customers to wear masks. The order was to take effect on June 26.

But Abbott nodded to the resistance that has flared particularly from within his party. Ahead of next month’s Texas GOP Convention in Houston, party leaders have said masks won’t be required.

“I know that some people feel that wearing a mask is inconvenient or that it is like an infringement of freedom,” Abbott said in a televised briefing outside his office in the Texas Capitol. “But I also know that wearing a mask will help us to keep Texas open.”

House Democrats quickly blasted Abbott’s reaction to surging cases as insufficient.

“He set the stage to finally take much-needed strong and decisive action — and then, predictably, backed away without doing anything,” Democratic state Rep. Chris Turner said in a statement.

On June 22, state health officials reported 3,711 hospitalizations, setting a record for the 11th consecutive day with a single-day jump of 302 new patients.

Texas also reported 3,280 new cases, the fifth-highest total since the state began keeping records and the highest yet reported on a Monday, which is typically the lowest day of the week for reported new cases. The state’s seven-day positivity rate rose again to 9.5%, its highest since April 20.

The 10 new fatalities reported Monday were the fewest reported in a week.

Abbott acknowledged the grim trends that continued over the weekend, saying the virus was spreading at “an unacceptable rate in Texas and must be corralled.”

Pressed on at what point he would consider putting restrictions back in place, Abbott said another doubling of new cases, hospitalizations and infection rates over the next month would create an “urgent situation” that would require action but did not offer specifics.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he was particularly disappointed after “all of the good work we did” in shutting down businesses and slowing the virus’ spread earlier this year. The number of COVID-positive hospital patients in Harris County, which encompasses Houston, has nearly tripled since May 31.

“Our power on the local level was stripped away and we started opening up,” Turner said. “I said two months ago I thought we were moving too quickly, too fast, and now we find ourselves where we are today.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe illness, including pneumonia, and be fatal.

Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in Houston contributed to this report.

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