Gov. Greg Abbott orders Texans to “minimize” nonessential activity outside their homes

A previous executive order from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shuttered schools until midnight Friday, but his most recent order extends the shutdown until May 4. Photo credit: Jordan Vonderhaar/POOL via The Texas Tribune

Last Updated on March 31, 2020 – 5:11 PM CDT

By Patrick Svitek – March 31, 2020

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday sought to get Texans to stay at home for the next month to stem the spread of the new coronavirus, issuing an order that says they must “minimize” social gatherings and in-person contact with people outside their homes unless they are taking part in “essential” services and activities. He also announced that schools would remain closed until at least May 4.

The decision brings Texas more in line with states that have implemented “shelter-in-place” — or “stay-at-home” — orders to fight the spread, but Abbott declined to similarly characterize his latest order, arguing those terms leave the wrong impression. He still wants Texans to know they can leave their homes to do things such as go to the grocery store or go for a jog.

“A stay-at-home strategy would mean that you have to stay at home — you cannot leave a home under any circumstances. That obviously is not what we have articulated here,” Abbott said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol in Austin. “This is a standard based upon essential services and essential activities.”

The state has outlined a list of over a dozen essential services that comply with Abbott’s order, largely aligned with federal guidance on the issue but adding religious services.

The language of the order and Abbott’s reluctance to call it a stay-at-home order caused some confusion about its scope and what specifically it restricts. But Abbott spokesman John Wittman said after the governor’s news conference that the “only thing that is allowed are essential services and personal activities that correspond with those services.”

“That is in addition to the personal and religious activities that the executive order explicitly allows,” Wittman said.

Later, state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said “Gov. Abbott has essentially created a statewide stay-at-home order.”

“His press conference today was confusing at times, but we believe it amounts to a step in the right direction,” Turner said.

The order, which goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, expands on one he issued earlier this month that did four things: limit social gatherings to 10 people; close bars, restaurants and gyms, while still allowing takeout; ban people from visiting nursing homes except for critical care; and temporarily close schools. That order is set to expire at midnight Friday.

Abbott’s latest order goes through April 30, aligning it with the new end date that President Donald Trump announced Monday for social-distancing guidelines.

“We’ve come too far to falter now,” Abbott said at the news conference, where he was joined by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. “We have made tremendous strides, but we have not yet reached our destination. … Together, we will preserve through this for another month.”

For over a week, Abbott has resisted calls for a statewide shelter-in-place order, leaving the decision up to local officials. In recent days, they have acted to put most of the Texas population under stay-at-home orders.

Abbott’s latest executive order supersedes any local rule where the two conflict. If local governments want to take more restrictive action than the executive order, Abbott said, they can do so as long as there is no conflict.

Hours before Abbott’s news conference, the leaders of the Texas Hospital Association and Texas Nurses Association released a letter to the governor saying the “time has come” for a statewide stay-at-home order.

“We urge you to implement this strict measure to prevent widespread illness in Texas,” the letter said.

There are at least 3,266 coronavirus cases in Texas, including 41 deaths, according to the most recent figures from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The cases are spread across 122 of the state’s 254 counties.

There have been 42,992 tests done in Texas, according to the latest numbers.

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