Abbott: Texas bars won’t reopen until COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations decrease

A bartender waits for customers at Buck Wild on West Sixth Street in downtown Austin as bars reopened on May 22. Photo credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for the Texas Tribune

By Alex Samuels, Texas Tribune

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Gov. Greg Abbott expressed his sympathy for Texans who are now unemployed following his order closing bars during a press conference on Thursday afternoon, but stressed that those areas cause some of the most “prolific spreading events.”

“When you go to bars, you don’t go in there and go to an isolated location,” Abbott said. “People come together. When you’re drinking, you’re not wearing a mask, you’re taking your mask off. After you’ve had several drinks, some people become fairly intoxicated and less likely to use discipline that is needed to make sure they are avoiding spreading COVID-19.”

Abbott said he’s read or talked with infectious disease doctors who rate bars a “leading transmission zone.” In late June, after a recent surge of Texas coronavirus cases, the governor shut down bars for a second time and scaled restaurant capacity to 50%.

On Thursday, he said bars could potentially reopen once coronavirus metrics improve more significantly. He said he would need to see the state’s positivity rate drop below 10% for a sustained period of time and for hospitalizations to decrease.

Currently, the Department of State Health Services is investigating the state’s increasing positivity rate — the percentage of tests taken yielding positive results — which climbed to an average of 25% for the week ending Aug. 11. Two weeks earlier, the average positivity rate was around 14%.

Abbott pointed to a few factors that have contributed to the increased rates: fewer people getting tested for COVID-19 and a drop in surge testing operations that took place in July in various coronavirus hotspots.

“We have observed for the past couple of weeks a decline in the number of people stepping forward to get tested,” Abbott said. “We do have abundant testing capacity. We have far more daily testing capacity than there are tests being undertaken because we’re not having people step forward to be tested as we did before.”

“We’re working on strategies as we speak that will be easy pathways to increase more people being tested, so you can expect those test numbers to go up here in the coming days.”

The governor’s comments come several weeks before the new school year starts — though Abbott has largely left it up to local school officials to decide whether courses for the 2020-2021 school year will be done remotely, in-person or a combination of the two.

Regarding college football, Abbott applauded the decision made earlier this week by the Big 12 Conference officials to allow college football this fall— directly impacting Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at Austin.

Abbott said he’s had the opportunity to speak to all of the athletic directors of the major football schools in the state, in addition to coaches and players, and said that the Big 12 is taking “the right step.”

“They wanted to play and they became comfortable and satisfied with the level of safety protocols that were being put in place,” Abbott said. “So long as that remains the paramount focal point, then college sports can continue. Then you get to the points of fans in stands, which we want to see and players would like to see also, but that is a health care system unto itself that we need to work collaboratively with the universities on.”