By PAUL J. WEBER Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republican Gov. Greg Abbott shut down bars in Texas again on Friday and scaled back restaurant dining, the most dramatic reversals yet as confirmed coronavirus cases surge.
Abbott also ordered rafting and tubing outfitters on Texas’ popular rivers to close and said outdoor gatherings of 100 people or more must be approved by local governments. The abrupt actions reflect how Texas is now scrambling to contain an outbreak less than two months after an aggressive reopening that was one of the fastest in the U.S.
“At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Abbott said. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”
He did not say when bars might reopen again.
Texas has reported more than 17,000 confirmed new cases in the last three days with a record high positive tests of 5,996 on Thursday. The day’s tally of 4,739 hospitalizations was also a record. The state’s rolling infection rate hit nearly 12%, a level not seen since the state was in a broad lockdown in mid-April.
Until this week, Abbott had maintained that worsening trends in June were a matter of concern but not alarm. But he quickly struck a newly urgent tone, urging people to stay home while warning that a “massive outbreak” is sweeping through Texas.
The figures include a doubling of the infection rate to more than 10% — a mark Abbott said in May would be a “red flag” in his reopening plan, which at the time he said was backed by the White House.
Under the newest rollbacks, restaurant dining rooms must scale back to half capacity starting Monday. The shuttering of rafting and tubing businesses comes after people consistently packed waterways since the state reopened in May, and ahead of the Fourth of July holiday weekend that typically sees big turnouts.
Abbott is not the only governor backpedaling following a swift reopening. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, also a Republican, is also telling residents to stay home and on Thursday declaring the state “on pause” as hospitals accelerate toward capacity.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the COVID-19 virus without feeling sick.
Meanwhile, the number of confirmed new infections in the U.S. per day soared past the previous high of 36,400, set on April 24, during one of the deadliest stretches in the crisis so far, according to the count kept by Johns Hopkins University.
While the increase is believed to reflect, in part, greatly expanded testing, experts say there is ample evidence the virus is making a comeback, including rising deaths and hospitalizations in parts of the country, especially in the South and West.
Arizona, Florida and Arkansas are among the states that have been hit hard like Texas.
Amid the surge, the White House coronavirus task force, led by Vice President Pence, was scheduled to hold its first briefing in nearly two months on Friday afternoon. signaling the White House’s recognition that it cannot ignore the alarming increases.
Deaths from the coronavirus in the U.S. are down to around 600 per day, compared with about 2,200 in mid-April. Despite the rise in cases, some experts have expressed doubt that deaths will return to that level, because of advances in treatment and prevention and also because a large share of the new infections are in younger adults, who are more likely than older ones to survive.
The virus is blamed for 124,000 deaths in the U.S. and 2.4 million confirmed infections nationwide, by Johns Hopkins’ count. But U.S. health officials said the true number of Americans infected is about 20 million, or almost 10 times higher. Worldwide, the virus has claimed close to a half-million lives, according to Johns Hopkins.
In addition to scaling back restaurant capacity, Abbott shut down rafting operations and said any outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people will need approval from the local government. The move came as the number of patients at Texas hospitals statewide more than doubled in two weeks.
Texas reported more than 17,000 confirmed new cases in the past three days, with a record high of nearly 6,000 on Thursday. The day’s tally of over 4,700 hospitalizations was also a record.
On Thursday, Arizona put on hold any further efforts to reopen the economy, with Republican Gov. Doug Ducey saying the numbers “continue to go in the wrong direction.” Arizona reported over 3,000 additional infections Thursday, the fourth day in a week with an increase over that mark.
Nevada’s governor ordered the wearing of face masks in public, Las Vegas casinos included.
Elsewhere around the world, China moved closer to containing a fresh outbreak in Beijing. Another record daily increase in India pushed the caseload in the world’s second most populous nation toward half a million. And other countries with big populations like Indonesia, Pakistan and Mexico grappled with large numbers of infections and strained health care systems.
South Africa, which accounts for about half of the infections on the African continent with over 118,000, reported a record of nearly 6,600 new cases after loosening what had been one of the world’s strictest lockdowns earlier this month.
Italy, one of the hardest-hit European nations, battled to control an outbreak among Bulgarian seasonal crop pickers near Naples.
The governor of the southern Campania region insisted that the workers who live in an apartment complex with dozens of COVID-19 cases stay inside for just over two weeks, not even emerging for food — authorities will deliver groceries to them.
Smith reported from Providencd, Rhode Island; D’Emelio reported from Rome. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.