HOUSTON — Just 55 days after reopening Texas restaurants and other businesses, Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday hit the pause button, stopping additional phases of the state’s reopening as new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations soared and as the Republican governor struggled to pull off the seemingly impossible task of keeping both the state open and the virus under control.
The announcement by Abbott — which allows the many shopping malls, restaurants, bars, gyms and other businesses already open to continue operating — was an abrupt turnaround and came as a growing number of states paused reopenings amid rising case counts.
The latest developments call into question any suggestion that the worst of the pandemic has passed in the United States, as rising outbreaks in the South and the West threaten to upend months of social distancing meant to help keep the virus at bay.
The nation recorded a new high point with 36,975 new cases Wednesday, nearly two months after many states began to reopen with the hope of salvaging the economy and the livelihoods of millions of Americans. Alabama, Missouri, Montana and Utah all hit new daily case records Thursday.
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday that the number of people in the United States who have been infected with the coronavirus is actually about 10 times higher than the 2.3 million cases that have been reported. “We probably recognized about 10% of the outbreak,” Redfield said in a call with reporters.
Redfield added that between 5-8% of Americans have been infected to date.
As cases climbed in more than half the states Thursday, the Labor Department reported that nearly 1.5 million workers filed new unemployment claims last week, the 14th week in a row that the figure has topped 1 million. And the outlook for the economy remained grim: More than 19 million people were still collecting state unemployment insurance, down slightly from 25 million in early May.
In a juxtaposition that reflects how far — and how little — the country has come in controlling the virus, Abbott’s announcement in Texas arrived on the same day that Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City declared the city on track to enter the next phase of reopening July 6, allowing indoor dining and personal care services, like manicures, to resume with social distancing.
Only two months ago, it was Texas that was allowing restaurants to reopen, while de Blasio was pleading with residents to resist the impulse to gather outdoors.
Now, Texas and several other states with rising cases are scrambling. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, this week paused further reopenings for three weeks and ordered residents to wear masks in public. In Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, said that “any discussion of entering Phase 3 will be tabled.”
And in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has been defiantly against shutting his state back down, said he did not intend to move to the next phase of reopening. “We never anticipated necessarily doing anything different in terms of the next phase at this point anyways,” he said Thursday in Tampa. “We are where we are.”
The worrying surge of cases has proved to be a test for states that decided reopening early was a necessary risk in order to save jobs.
The situation is perhaps most urgent in Texas, the nation’s second-largest state, which was under one of the shortest stay-at-home orders when Abbott decided to reopen the state in phases on May 1.
The virus has since spread rapidly in Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and other large cities in all regions of the state. Total known cases have topped 100,000, and on Wednesday, the state recorded its most new cases in a single day, with more than 6,200 new infections.
“The governor’s plan was always predicated on a very high rate of voluntary compliance with things like wearing masks and socially distancing,” said Mayor Eric Johnson of Dallas, a Democrat, who has pushed for a statewide mask policy. “I think what we’re seeing is that was a miscalculation.”
Abbott’s response to the increase in cases has been contradictory, and he has been criticized by both Democrats and Republicans over his handling of the stay-at-home order and mask requirements. In recent weeks, he has declared the state open for business, but has also said that Texans should stay home. He has said Texans should wear masks, but he has refused to issue a statewide mandate. His pausing of the reopening was viewed as yet another half-measure by his critics, some of whom called on him to roll back the reopening entirely, a move the governor suggested Thursday that he opposed.
“We are focused on strategies that slow the spread of this virus while also allowing Texans to continue earning a paycheck to support their families,” Abbott said Thursday. “The last thing we want to do as a state is go backward and close down businesses.”
Abbott called the pausing of the reopening “temporary” but did not indicate when he would resume the process. Bars now operate at 50% capacity, while restaurants operate at 75% capacity. Yet in many ways, the state feels fully reopened. Beaches and shops in Galveston have been packed. Malls from Houston to the border city of McAllen are busy throughout the day. Diners eat indoors and outdoors at restaurants in San Antonio, Austin and Houston.But the decision to reopen the state has been fraught for some business owners, including Omar YeeFoon, who owns Shoals Sound & Service, a cocktail bar in Dallas. “We were open for four days, and the cases just started going up and up,” he said. YeeFoon, 43, added that he thought reopening too quickly had also harmed business. “People are starting to get more and more scared. Less people want to go out.”
Hospitalizations are on the rise across Texas, including hard-hit Houston, where the Texas Medical Center reported a steep increase in patients over the past 10 days. Abbott, under pressure as the numbers soared, took another step to get the virus under control Thursday, stopping all elective surgeries at hospitals in the counties containing Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Austin, in order to free up capacity for COVID-19 patients.
The growing concern in Texas reflected a nation increasingly on edge, as a quieting of the pandemic in New York City and other epicenters gives way to an unfurling crisis in many other cities and states.
Florida has reported more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases over the past two days, bringing its total to 114,018. Orange County, home to Orlando, is averaging 353 new cases per day, compared to an average of 73 two weeks ago. And in Miami-Dade, which has reopened more slowly than the rest of the state, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said that for now all plans to move forward are on pause.
“We’re not opening up bars,” he said Wednesday. “We’re not opening up nightclubs. That’s just asking for trouble.”
Even California, which issued the first stay-at-home order in the nation and has had a gradual reopening, is struggling with climbing case counts. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said that the state had boosted its testing — there was an average of 88,000 tests across California over the past week — but the percentage of positive tests had also increased to 5.6% on average over the past seven days. About 34% of available intensive care unit beds were full Thursday, up slightly from the day before.
Cases have also been growing ominously in South Carolina, which was among the last states to issue a stay-at-home order and also among the first to begin opening up in late April. The upswing intensified in recent days, with more than 1,000 confirmed cases in a day reported for the first time June 19.
By Thursday, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control reported that 1,106 new confirmed cases had been diagnosed, along with eight more deaths, bringing the statewide totals to 28,962 cases and 691 confirmed deaths.
“That is undeniable, it’s a huge jump, and I think we all know the reason why,” said Knox H. White, the mayor of Greenville, South Carolina, which was among several cities that have passed mask ordinances in recent days. “It’s because we’ve all been a little lax on social distancing the past several weeks.”State lawmakers also passed legislation this week for spending $1.2 billion in federal aid on ramping up COVID-19 testing and restocking on personal protective equipment, as well as financial relief for hospitals, state agencies and local governments.
“When I open a newspaper, almost every day there are death notices of people who I know — who I have worked with — who are no longer here,” Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democratic state representative, said on the House floor this week, noting that many were essential workers.
“Here in South Carolina, we aren’t even at the peak of the first wave,” she added. “It scares me to think of what this state will be like in September.”