Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday afternoon that starting October 14, bars in most Texas counties can open at 50 percent capacity — as long as local county judges approve.
Like his last round of opening Texas businesses more widely back on September 17, Abbott said that the new allowances for bar openings only apply to parts of Texas where COVID-19 patients make up less than 15 percent of all hospitalizations, and even then, county judges still have to sign off.
That includes Harris County, although Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo hasn’t yet announced whether or not she’ll authorize local bars to open their doors as allowed by Abbott. Hidalgo's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Houston Press.
Update 6 p.m.: In a Wednesday evening statement, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo first criticized the governor for now choosing to give county judges the authority to make public health decisions related to bars when he refused to allow her to enforce the stay-at-home recommendation in her county COVID-19 threat system.
“We have not been able to enforce the Threat Level System,” she said, “which has led to a much slower decrease in the virus incidence.”
She then strongly hinted that she won’t let Harris County bars open next week, without saying so outright.
“The data guiding county decision-making tells us we are doing much better than we were a few months ago, but we are still at the highest level: red. Indoor, maskless gatherings should not be taking place right now, and this applies to bars, as well,” Hidalgo said. “We are moving in the right direction because of the community coming together and helping contain this virus. We must not let down our guard or we will be right back where we started."
At 3:45 p.m., KHOU’s Chris Costa tweeted that a Hidalgo spokesperson said the county judge “will be issuing a statement/guidance soon.” Based on the fact that Hidalgo hasn’t yet moved Harris County down from the red-alert rating on the county’s COVID-19 risk scale, it seems pretty unlikely that she’ll eagerly open up the county’s bars at this time.
Instead of holding a press conference that would require him to answer tough questions from reporters who might be wondering what exactly changed in the 20 days since he referred to bars as “nationally recognized COVID-spreading locations,” Abbott took a cue from his party’s fearless leader, President Trump, by making the announcement via social media.
Just after 2 p.m. Wednesday, Abbott tweeted “It sure would be good to watch my Facebook page about an hour from now.” Then at 3:32 p.m. he uploaded a nearly seven-minute video to his Facebook page just before 4 p.m. Wednesday announcing the move.
“The good news is that even with additional business openings, even with more students returning to school and more gatherings like football games, Texans have shown that we can contain the spread of COVID,” Abbott said, before bragging that new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and fatalities “have remained steady” in the nearly three weeks since he announced many non-bar businesses could expand capacity.
Apparently a “steady” amount of disease spread and preventable deaths was enough for the governor to open the door for bars across Texas to open. He also said river tubing businesses — the only other state businesses other than bars that hadn’t been allowed to open — could also open at 50 percent capacity if local county judges sign off.
During a Wednesday afternoon interview with KHOU’s Marcelino Benito while the news on bars broke, prominent epidemiologist Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine said he's glad Abbott left the decision on bar openings to county judges, and warned he expects open bars will lead to more coronavirus spread.
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“I’m not very optimistic about opening up bars at this point. We still have a lot of transmission,” Hotez said.
Other businesses that weren’t included in Abbott’s previous reopening expansion — bowling alleys, bingo halls, fine arts performing halls, movie theaters, water parks, zoos and aquariums — can now expand from 50 percent capacity to 75 percent without county judge approval, Abbott said Wednesday.
“Opening bars does not mean that COVID is no longer a threat,” Abbott said. “Most Texans are still susceptible to it. We simply now know better how to protect ourselves from getting COVID.”
“Everyone has the individual ability to avoid getting COVID and to avoid spreading COVID simply by following the safe practices that everyone has already learned,” he continued.