By Allie Morris & James Barragán – dallasnews.com – March 19, 2020
Gov. Greg Abbott is temporarily closing schools, restaurant dining areas, gyms and bars statewide in his most sweeping action yet to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. The order is effective early Saturday morning and continues until April 3, he said Thursday.
“All jurisdictions must work to contain the spread of COVID-19 for at least the next two weeks,” Abbott said in a televised announcement from the Texas Capitol.
His executive order limits social gatherings to no more than 10 people and restricts people from visiting nursing homes and retirement centers unless they are providing “critical assistance,” he said. While dining in at restaurants and bars will not be allowed, Abbott encouraged Texans to continue ordering food from local eateries for pickup or delivery.
All schools in Texas will be temporarily closed, though Abbott said superintendents should work with the state to continue “online or additional education options.”
The order may be extended beyond April 3, depending on the status of COVID-19 in Texas then, Abbott said. He emphasized that the action is not a shelter-in-place order. It does not prohibit people from going to the grocery store, gas stations, banks or parks, he said.
Offices and workplaces can remain open, but employees should be allowed to work from home if feasible, Abbott said.
The Republican will refrain from travel, if at all possible, to avoid potential transmission of the virus, he said. During a televised town hall Thursday night, Abbott revealed that he had tested negative for the virus.
“We are doing this now, today, so we can get back to business as usual more quickly,” he said.
Abbott said government agencies would be able to enforce his order. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, for example, could revoke a bar’s license to serve alcohol if it stays open.
“Literally, their life as an ongoing business is on the line if they violate the order,” Abbott said during the town hall.
Churches and funerals are not affected by the restrictions, though Abbott said it would be best to keep funerals small, separate mourners or stream the service online.
The state also has power to more easily order people into quarantine, after the leader of the Texas Department of State Health Services declared a public health disaster Thursday. The last time that happened was in 1901, in response to smallpox, officials said.
“We don’t want to exercise that authority right now because we want to depend upon the responsibility that all Texans will show,” Abbott said. “If Texans are irresponsible in their behavior though, there are more tools where we could be more aggressive, only if needed.”
DSHS Commissioner John Hellerstedt said Thursday’s actions were prudent to stop the spread of COVID-19, which he called the “greatest public health challenge in living memory.” At least four deaths in Texas have been attributed to the disease, including one in Dallas County.
“If we delay, we will not only pay a higher price than is necessary, but we will rue the day that we, all of Texas, did not choose to act decisively,” Hellerstedt said.
Before Thursday, Abbott had left much of the decision-making to mayors, county leaders and elected school boards, resulting in a patchwork of restrictions. Dallas and Fort Worth had closed restaurants, for example, but Frisco had not.
The varied approach frustrated some local officials, who warned that their own strict rules could be undermined by neighboring counties with more lax restrictions.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who had pressed earlier in the week for a statewide order, thanked Abbott for his action. Similarly, state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle praised Abbott’s action.
“This is the correct course of action,” tweeted Grand Prairie Rep. Chris Turner, who is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “All Texans need to follow these directives in order to slow the spread of #COVID19 and best protect the public health.”
Kevin Nevels, chairman of the Coppell Chamber of Commerce board of trustees and owner of the Coppell Taekwondo Academy, said he had mixed feelings about the mandated closures.
“Our overall concern is health and safety, that is the No. 1 priority,” he said. “But we do have to look at this long term. When COVID-19 starts to subside, we want to make sure that as many of these businesses [as possible] are still here and able to get past this. We’ll use every tool at our disposal to do that.”
He said the chamber was taking input from members about their biggest needs during the closures and featuring restaurants on social media that were still taking delivery and takeout orders. His own school was forced to cancel in-person classes this week and transitioned to online classes.
Nevels said he was thankful to Abbott for allowing restaurants with mixed-beverage permits to deliver alcohol.
“There’s a lot of margin for that. I’m hoping that will be a big boost so these restaurants can help themselves with boosted alcohol sales,” he said.
At least 10 states across the country have required restaurant and bar closures, though some governors have gone further, restricting the public’s access to gyms and movie theaters, according to the National Governors Association. Even more states have implemented statewide school closures.
Abbott had said he was holding off on ordering closures and limiting public gatherings because the state’s vast geography meant different jurisdictions were not all at the same place in regards to infection rates. But statewide guidance was needed, said Davia Downey, an associate professor of public administration at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.
“People are mobile. If we don’t tell people the same thing [across the board] people will drive, and if they go somewhere that’s not following the quarantine, they’re going to infect that place,” Downey said. “This is one place where you need to have the governor make the call rather than leaving it to the counties.”
Downey said the decision was a politically difficult one, particularly in a conservative state where leaders are loath to disrupt economic activity. But she said that explaining it as a public health and protection response could help people understand the need.
“There has to be a compelling story that really helps the general public understand the why behind a call like this,” she said.
Major counties including Dallas and Tarrant had already shut down dine-in services at restaurants, though Abbott’s order will affect areas where local officials hadn’t taken such action.
The Texas Restaurant Association said the decision would have a catastrophic impact on an industry that employs 1.4 million people statewide, but its leader said the association appreciated Abbott’s call for Texans to keep ordering food for takeout and at drive-throughs.
“We need deferred taxes, emergency bridge loans and access to emergency unemployment insurance,” said Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the restaurant association.
Abbott’s order also calls for gyms and massage parlors to close temporarily. It wasn’t clear how those restrictions would be enforced.
Private institutions are included in the order temporarily closing all schools, said Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association. Many private schools already had shut their doors over coronavirus concerns, she said.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said the sooner Texans follow the executive order, the sooner businesses will be able to reopen.
“It really is up to 29 million Texans to really step up and be the front line in this fight,” said Patrick, a Republican. “I am asking all of you to join us and follow the lead of our governor.”
Abbott reminded the public that the unemployment benefits process has been accelerated to get eligible Texans their aid more quickly. He waived the 10-day investigation period for people applying for unemployment.
The best thing the state can do to ensure all unemployed people get back to work is to “bend the curve” and slow transmission of the virus, Abbott said.
But questions remained about the state’s ability to help people who have lost their jobs or whose hours have been drastically cut during the crisis.
Downey said that in Michigan, where she lives, the governor has extended unemployment benefits to people who have unexpected family care responsibility, such as caring for children whose schools have closed; workers who are sick, quarantined or immuno-compromised and are laid off or don’t have access to paid family or medical leave; and first responders who become sick or are quarantined because they were exposed to the virus. There, the benefits have also been extended from 20 weeks to 26.
“Given the rapid infection rate of this disease and the likelihood it’ll spread very quickly, extending those benefits also makes a lot of sense,” Downey said. “That’s something that would be prudent.”
Abbott’s executive order takes effect overnight Friday and lasts through April 3. During that time:
– Social gatherings must be limited to 10 people or fewer. This does not include places of worship.
– Patrons cannot dine in at restaurants or bars, though they are encouraged to order food from local eateries for delivery or takeout. Drive-through ordering is also still allowed.
– All schools are closed, including private ones.
– Gyms and massage parlors are closed.
– People cannot visit nursing homes, retirement centers or long-term care facilities unless they are providing “critical assistance.”
Read the full order here.
To see this article and others from The Dallas News, click read more.