Gov. Abbott loosens COVID restrictions on restaurants, businesses for most of Texas

Gov. Greg Abbott announced a new round of business reopenings Thursday, including restaurants, gyms and nursing homes, as coronavirus infections and hospitalizations continued to decline. Gov. Abbott loosens COVID restrictions on restaurants, businesses for most of Texas Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday, Sept.17, 2020 during a press conference that […]

Gov. Greg Abbott announced a new round of business reopenings Thursday, including restaurants, gyms and nursing homes, as coronavirus infections and hospitalizations continued to decline.

The reopenings apply to every region in the state except Victoria, Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley, where hospitals still are dealing with large numbers of infected patients.

Abbott said the state will allow most businesses to reopen at 75 percent of their maximum occupancy in regions where COVID-19 patients make up less than 15 percent of hospitals’ total patient population.

Bars still are prohibited from reopening, though some have been able to work around the restriction in recent weeks by rebranding as restaurants with sit-down service.

In addition, hospitals in San Antonio and other regions that meet the 15-percent threshold now can resume normal operations — including elective procedures, which had been restricted while the state fought a summer surge of coronavirus cases.

Under Abbott’s order, more nursing homes and assisted living facilities will be able to reopen for essential visits starting next week. The decision will come as a huge relief to friends and relatives who have been unable to come in close contact with loved ones for months.

“Texans have shown that we can address both the health and safety concerns of COVID-19 while also taking careful, measured steps to restore the livelihoods that Texans depend on,” Abbott said in his first statewide briefing on the pandemic in months.

San Antonio officials reacted to the governor’s action with guarded optimism — and with renewed reminders about the importance of wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

“The success of the reopening and whether or not we can do it safely will hinge on whether or not people are still committed to the behaviors — mask-wearing, physical distancing and avoiding large crowds — and staying home when you have symptoms,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said.

“I think if we can do that, we can keep our infections under control,” he said. “We’ll be reminding folks: Please maintain those practices. Make sure you continue to wear your mask.”

Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez, appearing with the mayor at his daily coronavirus briefing, expressed concern that people might let down their guard.

“I think the danger … is that you start to feel like, ‘Well, maybe something’s changed, so I can change my behavior,’” he said. “I think the reality is we need to double down on these habits we’ve formed over the last few months.”

For Abbott, the new regional threshold based on the percentage of coronavirus hospitalizations marks a significant shift. He had previously resisted committing to a regional approach and had said he would rely on a range of metrics — not just hospitalizations — to determine policies.

But the state’s health agency has been dogged by data backlogs, and officials in some counties said they had lost confidence in state metrics such as the number of new daily infections and the percentage of COVID tests that come back positive (known as the “test positivity rate”).

Data on COVID-19 hospitalizations have been more reliable throughout the pandemic.

Other large states, including New York and California, are using regional reopening plans based on multiple criteria, including new cases and the test positivity rate. Some public health experts have cautioned against relying on hospitalization rates alone because they lag behind infections and therefore provide a delayed picture of community spread of the virus.

The San Antonio region is well below the governor’s 15 percent threshold: As of Thursday, COVID-19 patients accounted for about 6 percent of all hospitalizations, according to state data.

Texas has reported nearly 700,000 infections since March and nearly 14,500 deaths, a toll similar to that in other large states, including California and Florida. In Texas, the text positivity rate has stayed below 10 percent for at least two weeks.

In San Antonio, the rate reached a peak of 24 percent in mid-July. It dropped sharply thereafter and is now around 6 percent, according to the Metropolitan Health District.

Texas Democrats criticized Abbott for permitting further reopenings without fixing what they said were shortcomings in the state’s response to the pandemic.

“Gov. Abbott’s press conference today was notable for what he didn’t say,” said Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. “There was no mention of a contact tracing program, no mention of improving the state’s unreliable data and no mention of expanding Medicaid to increase access to health care for the millions of Texans who are uninsured.”

Abbott’s easing of restrictions comes as the pandemic has loosened its grip on Bexar County. The growth in confirmed infections has slowed sharply since mid-July, when the number of confirmed new cases often increased by more than 1,000 in a single day. The one-day peak — 2,202 — was reached on July 19.

The daily counts of new cases have fallen precipitously since then and only rarely have exceeded 200 since mid-August.

The number of COVID-19 patients in San Antonio hospitals peaked at 1,267 on July 13. It is now slightly above 200.

But Dr. Junda Woo, medical director of the Metropolitan Health District, said the favorable trend did not mean the pandemic was over or that people could abandon social distancing and mask-wearing.

“We just can’t go back to the way things were in 2019,” she said. “We just don’t have an effective, accessible vaccine yet.”

Staff writers Greg Marago and Cayla Harris contributed to this report.

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