Texas and Florida reverse reopenings as US outbreak hits record

Texas and Florida took steps to reverse their reopening plans on Friday as the US recorded its largest one-day increase in coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, raising fears the country’s economic rebound could be shortlived.

Florida had the biggest rise in new cases on record, reporting 8,942 new infections over the preceding 24 hours — compared with the 5,004 cases tallied on Thursday — pushing the nationwide total to 44,373, the third straight day US cases rose at a record rate.

The new outbreak has prompted several governors to put plans to ease lockdowns on hold, led by Texas governor Greg Abbott, who on Friday ordered all bars to close and limited public gatherings to fewer than 100 people.

Mr Abbott’s executive order, which also requires restaurants to cut their indoor dining to half capacity, was the second attempt in as many days to snuff out a sudden jump in new cases in Texas. Florida authorities also banned alcohol from bars statewide.

Florida and Texas are two of more than a dozen states in the US south and west that have experienced a new wave of coronavirus cases, raising the prospect that many of the regions that reopened their economies quickly will have to reverse the measures.

That possibility sent jitters through Wall Street, with the benchmark S&P 500 dropping sharply after the Texas and Florida announcements. The index closed down 2.4 per cent, with high-yield bonds also hit by the outbreak data.

“The latest case counts confirm to everybody that we are not in a position to relax social distancing guidelines,” said David Kelly, the chief global strategist at JPMorgan Asset Management. “There was too much exuberance in the bounce back.”

Anthony Fauci, the infectious diseases expert helping to lead the US pandemic fight, said some states may have to return to full “shelter-in-place” policies, but suggested they should first start with more limited restrictions such as limiting crowds and requiring masks.

“If you say you’re going to go back into lockdown, there’ll be an absolute pushback on that,” Dr Fauci told an online Milken Institute conference. “You might have to do it. You never take it off the table.”

Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, declined to comment on whether he would take more severe measures to deal with his state’s outbreak, pointing to the ban on alcohol at bars as a sign of action. “A lot of simple actions can go a long way,” Mr DeSantis said at a news conference.

Mike Pence, the US vice-president who heads the White House coronavirus task force, said there were 16 states with a rising number of cases. He said he had spoken to the governors of Texas, Florida and Arizona and would be visiting the states in the coming days to “get a ground report”.

“As the president has made clear, we want to open our economy up and we want to move America forward, even while we take and continue to take steps necessary to protect lives,” Mr Pence said after a task force meeting.

Mr Abbott’s executive order comes a day after he banned elective medical procedures to free up beds to handle a wave of Covid-19 patients and marks a reversal for the Texas governor, who had been one of the most aggressive in allowing reopenings of restaurants and other businesses.

“At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Mr Abbott said. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and enhance public health.”

Texas recorded 5,707 additional cases on Friday, the fourth straight day of more than 5,000 new infections. Arizona, another western US state that has seen a sharp increase, had 3,428 new cases, near a new record. California recorded 4,890 and San Francisco’s mayor said the city would delay reopening measures scheduled for Monday.

The Texas bar closures were to begin at noon on Friday and the limits on restaurants take effect on Monday. The Florida measures, announced by the state’s business department, does not require bars to shut, but suspended “on premises consumption of alcohol” statewide.

Mr Pence said the new outbreaks were disproportionately infecting those under the age of 35 and noted that hospitalisations and deaths still remained low compared with historic rates.

“As we know, so far in this pandemic, younger Americans are less susceptible to serious outcomes,” the US vice-president said. “The fact that we are finding more younger Americans who have contracted the coronavirus is a good thing.”

He also insisted that the US is better prepared to handle a new outbreak than it was in March, when the initial spike centred around New York led to more than 100,000 fatalities.

“Because as we see new cases rising . . . there may be a tendency among the American people to think that we are back to the place that we were two months ago,” Mr Pence said. “The reality is we are in a much better place.”

Additional reporting by Mamta Badkar, Eric Platt and Hannah Kuchler in New York

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