Gov. Abbott announces widespread public closures

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and top officials announced new state policies to combat the coronavirus at the governor's office press conference room on Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Austin, Texas. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

By Meredith Pratt | Staff Writer

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott hosted a televised town hall meeting to update Texans on the COVID-19 outbreak Thursday night.

“We are dealing with a very real challenge,” Abbott said. “An invisible danger.”

Other officials present at the meeting included Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt, Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath and Medicaid Director at Texas HHSC Stephanie Muth.

The town hall consisted of Abbott answering questions from Twitter in order to communicate the latest information to Texas citizens. Abbott first addressed that he had tested negative for the virus, and that as of Thursday evening five Texans have died from the virus.

Many of the public’s questions pertained to childcare, as school has been temporarily cancelled statewide.

Abbott answered by saying that the state is “urging” childcare facilities to remain open while maintaining “heightened standards” of safety and sanitary measures, and that for working parents who cannot afford childcare “federally funded programs are being created as we speak.”

Another topic discussed was the state’s economy. While he said he could not fully address what will happen with the economy, Abbott said that small businesses can apply for extended loans beginning next Monday “at the latest.”

“This is going to be a tough economic time, but not just in Texas. You see it across not just the entire nation but across the entire world right now,” Abbott said.

Addressing healthcare concerns, Abbott said that in order to allow hospitals to bring in as many patients as possible, hotel rooms may be used in the future for those patients who need to remain in quarantine for two weeks after testing positive for COVID-19 but do not exhibit “extreme health-based issues.”

Muth also gave input on this topic by encouraging citizens to reach out for help regarding their mental health, in addition to physical ailments.

“This is a very anxiety-producing time for some individuals, and mental health services are very important,” Muth said.

Abbott acknowledged his uncertainty about what measures will be needed next to protect Texans from COVID-19.

“We don’t know if this is going to last two weeks or last 10 months, and because we’re dealing with these uncertainties, I think we need to maintain flexibility in how we govern to ensure we will be able to take care of our fellow Texans,” Abbott said.

“These are unique times and they call for unique solutions,” Abbott said. “Together we will make it through.”

Abbott held a news conference at the capitol earlier Thursday afternoon and he issued an executive order closing schools, restaurants, bars and gyms statewide.

The order requires restaurants to only utilize takeout and delivery services and limits social gatherings to 10 people. It also requires visitation at nursing homes and retirement centers to be limited to healthcare workers only.

The restrictions begin Friday at midnight and will continue to be in effect through April 3, after which they will be reevaluated.

Following the order, House Democratic Caucus chairman and Texas state representative Chris Turner tweeted: “This is the correct course of action. All Texans need to follow these directives in order to slow the spread of #COVID19 and best protect the public health.”

While many public locations are now prohibited, Abbott said that “all critical infrastructure” will continue to be available. This includes grocery stores, banks and gas stations. Domestic travel will continue to be unrestricted.

Abbott’s decision came soon after states, such as New York, Colorado and others, made similar restrictions.

Before Thursday’s order, Abbott announced on Monday that STAAR testing is to be canceled for public schools. He made several announcements Wednesday, allowing May 2 elections to be postponed, permitting restaurants to deliver alcoholic beverages and closing driver’s license offices, as well as waiving expiration dates for driver’s licenses.

The public closures will continue to impact Texas’ economy and unemployment rates. To combat major downturns, Abbott waived certain policies in order to speed up the disbursement of unemployment benefits.

“No one responds to challenges better than Texas. So let’s muster our traditional Texas spirit and, together, defeat COVID-19,” Abbott said.