Texas to impose new safety rules for child care centers due to increase in coronavirus cases

A day care center in Austin. Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday directed the state Health and Human Services Commission to enact new health and safety standards for child care centers during the coronavirus — more than a week after prior rules for the centers were made optional.

Abbott's order, which comes as new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge in the state, doesn’t immediately make clear what the standards will be, though a spokesman for the governor told The Texas Tribune that the state health commission will be releasing the guidelines Wednesday.

Abbott also on Tuesday gave local officials the green light to impose more restrictions on public gatherings of more than 100 people. Previously, local officials could only regulate outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people.

“These are just some of the steps Texas will take to contain the rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations,” Abbott said in a statement. “Today’s proclamation and emergency rules will aid in that effort in two key ways: allowing restrictions on large gatherings where COVID-19 is easily spread and implementing a statewide standard of infection control for child care centers.”

Abbott said that both actions are based on data showing an increase in coronavirus cases stemming from both large gatherings and child care centers.

As of mid-June, state-licensed child care centers were no longer required to comply with a list of safety precautions that had been in effect since mid-April. That meant centers could decide for themselves if they wanted to check staff temperatures, require parents to drop off their children outside or stop serving family-style meals, according to a previous notice from the state Health and Human Services Commission.

"Before today, they were recommendations. As of today, they are now requirements," Abbott said during a Tuesday evening interview with KTVT in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The decision brought praise from advocates for children, some of who had called for stricter standards in recent days.

“Depending on what these new rules require, Texas leaders will need to ensure that new standards are coupled with new supports,” said David Feigen, policy associate for Texans Care for Children. “We are eager to work with the Governor to develop a Texas plan to ensure child care providers can provide safe and quality care without increasing costs to Texas families.”

Earlier Tuesday, Texas reported over 5,000 new coronavirus cases — another record high. Throughout the week, the governor has struck a newly urgent tone about the rise in COVID-19 cases in the state, and said at a press conference on Monday that the virus is “now spreading at an unacceptable rate in Texas.”

Abbott allowed the state’s stay-at-home order expire on May 1 and since then has allowed most businesses in the state to at least partially reopen. Local officials have raised alarm that recent growth trends have been alarming. But as cases continue to climb, the governor has continued to tout Texas’ hospital capacity as plentiful. Abbott said on Monday that closing down the state again will “always be the last option.”

Texas medical centers have tracked a surge in hospitalizations two weeks after holiday weekends like Easter and Memorial Day. Now, some researchers say they’re concerned about the upcoming July 4 holiday.

Heading into the holiday weekend, Abbott again reiterated a need for personal responsibility and encouraged Texans to wear masks, wash their hands often and socially distance.

“As we face this challenge, there is no substitute for personal responsibility,” he said.

Patrick Svitek contributed reporting.