Gov. Greg Abbott answers questions about closing bars, reopening schools and the coronavirus surge in Texas

HOUSTON – As Texas coronavirus cases surge, Gov. Greg Abbott spoke to KPRC 2 Friday evening after issuing an order to close all Texas bars and reduce restaurant capacity to 50%.

For the last four days, there have been more than 5,000 new cases reported in the state each day with Houston and Harris County becoming a major hotspot for the virus in Texas.

Here’s a breakdown of the Texas case totals for each day:

DayNew cases reported

Here’s what we asked the governor and how he responded:

Question: Do you think you acted too quickly in reopening Texas, even though we know people were eager to get back to work to support their families?

Abbott: You know, if you look to the reopening, to the best that we had it in the state of Texas until we get to today, you see something very interesting. So, about a month after I announced the reopening, on this exact... I announced it on April 27th, on this day in May, get these numbers: we had 589 people test positive. Today, that number has increased by ten-fold, to more than 5,700.

We have 1,548 people in hospitals on this day, last month. Now it’s more than 5,100. On this day, last month, we have the lowest positivity rate on record after we slowed the spread of the coronavirus. Today, we’re over 11% (positivity rate).

What I said from the very beginning as we opened up is that if the numbers worsened, which they did more than a month after we opened up, then Texas would take action and that’s exactly why I took the action I did today, because we took action that we know will slow the spread, based upon data that we have.

Question: The Harris County Judge issued a stay at home advisory today. She could not issue an order because you have not given them authority. Would you consider giving them that authority now?

Abbott: First I will tell you this and that is I’ve been saying the same this week. The safest place a person can be is at home. When you look at the amount of spread that we’re seeing in some places, like in Harris County, if a person doesn’t need to be out, if they’re not going to work or not going shopping like they need to do, whatever the case may be, they should stay at home. And if they do need to get out, the best practice is for them to wear a mask and maintain their distance from others.

That said, now is not the time for stay-at-home policies across the entire board. I believe we can do both, continue to engage in our economy, while slowing the spread. Remember, we did that for months. Texans knew how to slow the spread by doing what we did in March and April and during the course of May. All we need to do is get back to those best practices of wearing a mask, sanitizing your hands, keeping your distance and if possible, especially if you’re over the age of 65, stay home.

Question: As you know faith is very big in the state of Texas but churches have been a source of COVID spread. Although this becomes a First Amendment concern, do you plan to reinstate any restrictions on houses of worship?

Abbott: So I believe that we can both protect Constitutional rights while also containing the spread of the coronavirus. Under my new order issued today, churches do remain open. However, there are guidelines in place for these churches that instill distancing practices. All the churches that I’ve spoken with, the church leaders that I’ve spoken with, they are using these safe distancing practices because they don’t want the members of their church to contract COVID-19. They don’t want to lose the lives of any of the members of their churches. And so I believe churches will act responsibly and they’re practicing distancing so as to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Question: Your office just announced federal funding will continue for testing sites. When it comes to hospitals, what will be your plan to bolster healthcare systems that are experiencing that surge capacity?

Abbott: Let me address both of those. First, I talked to the Vice President last night. My team has been working with the officials with health and human services to make sure that we will have these testing sites still open to make sure we will be able to conduct robust testing, across the Harris County region.

With regards to the hospitals and healthcare capacity, know this: the entirety of this week, I’ve been talking to administrators and doctors and leaders of many of the hospitals in Harris County as well as other counties. (We’ve been) working on strategies to make sure everybody who needs access to a hospital bed, who tests positive for COVID-19, is going to have one. But also, working on strategies to ensure all of the healthcare needs of everybody else, who may not have COVID-19, will also be addressed.

Question: There are some hospitals here that are not canceling elective procedures despite your order. Is that allowed even if those hospitals have enough capacity for ICU patients or maybe don’t even have ICU patients?

Abbott: If you read the wording of my executive order, it does allow some hospitals to conduct some procedures. To ensure that those procedures will be able to be allowed, however, they must make a bed available if a patient shows up with COVID-19.

Question: You and state education leaders have said students will be allowed to go back to the campuses in the fall. Considering our current situation, under what circumstances would campuses actually stay closed?

Abbott: The Texas Education Agency has prepared for any contingency. There’s two key phrases the education commissioner is focused on. First and foremost, it’s protecting the safety of all students, teachers, staff as well as parents. Second is maintaining a level of flexibility in order to achieve that level of safety.

What that means is this: the goal is to have students in classes with teachers and fellow students, because that is the best setting for them. If, however, there is an outbreak of COVID-19, whether it be community-wide or in a particular school, they do have the flexibility to provide enhanced online distanced learning for their students.

They were thrust into that situation back in March of this past school year. They now have much improved strategies and practices to make sure distance learning would be far more enhanced and far more effective. We cannot lose a generation of students to this pandemic. So we must use the smart strategies to ensure students will be educated but be done so in a way that reduces and controls the spread of COVID-19.

Question: As you know the state’s positivity rate has been above 10% since this past Wednesday and in the city of Houston it’s actually 11%. Are you considering any additional measures right now?

Abbott: It’s because the positivity rate went above 10%, that was one of the things that spurred me to action because, as you pointed out, I announced a long time ago that if the positivity rate went above 10%, it would lead to action on my part. That’s exactly what we delivered today. So statewide, the positivity rate is now 11.6% and that’s exactly why we’re taking action that data has shown, should reduce the spread, such as closing bars which happened to be a location where we got reports from across the state of Texas, that COVID-19 was spreading from those types of locations.

Question: What’s your advice to Houstonians going forward over the next few weeks?

Abbott: Please understand this: your health is the most important thing. You can ensure the safety of your health by staying home if at all possible. If you do need to get out, please wear a mask, sanitize your hands and keep your distance from others. Those very same practices that led to the slow of the spread of the coronavirus in the first place.