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Gov. Greg Abbott extends social distancing guidelines, school closures amid coronavirus pandemic

Updates from Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday, March 29
Updates from Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday, March 29

HOUSTON – Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday sought to get Texans to stay at home for the next month to stem the spread of the new coronavirus, issuing an order that says they must "minimize" social gatherings and in-person contact with people outside their homes unless they are taking part in "essential" services and activities. He also announced that schools would remain closed until at least May 4.

The decision brings Texas more in line with states that have implemented shelter-in-place — or stay-at-home — orders to fight the spread, but Abbott declined to characterize his latest order that way, arguing those terms leave the wrong impression. He wants Texans to know they can still leave their homes to do things such as go to the grocery store or go for a jog.

"A stay-at-home strategy would mean that you have to stay at home — you cannot leave a home under any circumstances. That obviously is not what we have articulated here," Abbott said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol in Austin. "This is a standard based upon essential services and essential activities."

The state has outlined a list of more than a dozen essential services that comply with Abbott’s order, which is largely aligned with federal guidance on the issue but adds religious services.

The language of the order and Abbott's reluctance to call it a stay-at-home order caused some confusion about its scope and what specifically it restricts. But Abbott spokesman John Wittman said after the governor's news conference that the "only thing that is allowed are essential services and personal activities that correspond with those services."

"That is in addition to the personal and religious activities that the executive order explicitly allows," Wittman said.

Later, state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said, "Gov. Abbott has essentially created a statewide stay-at-home order.

“His press conference today was confusing at times, but we believe it amounts to a step in the right direction,” Turner said.

The order, which goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, expands on one Abbott issued earlier this month that did four things: limit social gatherings to 10 people; close bars, restaurants and gyms, while still allowing takeout; ban people from visiting nursing homes except for critical care; and temporarily close schools. That order is set to expire at midnight Friday.

Abbott's latest order goes through April 30, aligning it with the new end date that President Donald Trump announced Monday for social-distancing guidelines.

"We’ve come too far to falter now,” Abbott said at the news conference, where he was joined by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. "We have made tremendous strides, but we have not yet reached our destination. … Together, we will persevere through this for another month."

For over a week, Abbott has resisted calls for a statewide shelter-in-place order, leaving the decision up to local officials. In recent days, they have acted to put most of the Texas population under stay-at-home orders.

Abbott's latest executive order supersedes any local rule where the two conflict. If local governments want to take more restrictive action than the executive order, Abbott said, they can do so as long as there is no conflict.

Hours before Abbott's news conference, the leaders of the Texas Hospital Association and Texas Nurses Association released a letter to the governor saying the "time has come" for a statewide stay-at-home order.

"We urge you to implement this strict measure to prevent widespread illness in Texas," the letter said.

There are at least 3,266 coronavirus cases in Texas, including 41 deaths, according to the most recent figures from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The cases are spread across 122 of the state’s 254 counties.

There have been 42,992 tests done in Texas, according to the latest numbers.

Disclosure: The Texas Hospital Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.