AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday that Texas’ schools will stay closed through at least May and imposed restrictions that doctors and even his critics say amount to a stay-at-home order for the state — despite Abbott refusing to call it that.
Most governors have now imposed stay-at-home orders as coronavirus cases mount in the U.S., but Abbott has rejected doing so for his state of 29 million people. And his efforts Tuesday to explain what is allowed and what isn’t under his new executive order was at times so cloudy that aides were left trying later to clarify.
Abbott’s order states that “every person in Texas shall, except where necessary to provide or obtain essential services, minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.” Essential services include grocery stores and health care providers, among a long list of other things.
Democrats and leaders of Texas hospitals — who hours earlier had urged the governor in a letter that the time had come to “send a clear message” — said they were left with the impression that Abbott had issued a stay-at-home order. Abbott, however, soundly rejected that language.
“This is not a stay-at-home strategy. A stay-at-home strategy would mean that you have to stay home,” Abbott said. “This is a standard based upon essential services and essential activities.”
State Rep. Chris Turner, the leading Democrat in the Texas House, called the announcement “confusing at times” but a step in the right direction. “For whatever reason, the governor was unwilling to call this a stay-at-home order,'” Turner said.
The Texas Medical Association nonetheless applauded what it called a “stay-at-home executive order.”
Texas Hospital Association spokeswoman Carrie Williams said: “Stay home unless it’s essential to go out. That message now has been sent to all corners of Texas, and we are in total support of having this statewide protocol.”
All of Texas’ largest counties have imposed stay-at-home orders, including around Houston, where Harris County extended until the end of April its mandate that closes most business and bans public gatherings.
Texas has more than 3,200 cases of coronavirus and at least 41 deaths related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Most people who contract COVID-19 have mild or moderate symptoms, which can include fever and cough but also milder cases of pneumonia, sometimes requiring hospitalization. The risk of death is greater for older adults and people with other health problems. Hospitals in the most afflicted areas are straining to handle patients and some are short of critical supplies.
Officials in Harris County planned to release up to 1,000 inmates from the county jail as a part of effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Tuesday she plans to sign an order that will prevent individuals facing non-violent charges from being held at the jail during the county’s disaster declaration due to the virus.
Hidalgo, the county’s top administrator, called the county jail a “ticking time bomb” with regard to the spread of the virus as the cramped conditions at the facility make it “virtually impossible” to enforce social distancing.
Hidalgo said she worried that an outbreak in the jail, which has about 8,000 inmates as well as about 3,000 employees and others that go in and out daily, could overrun the local health care system.
Officials say there has been one confirmed case of an inmate with COVID-19 at the jail with two dozen inmates showing symptoms.
Associated Press writer Juan A. Lozano in Houston contributed to this report.