Texas slows reopening in face of new Covid-19 outbreak

Texas slammed the brakes on its economic reopening in the face of a leap in coronavirus cases, halting plans to ease lockdown restrictions and banning elective surgeries in its four biggest cities to free up hospital beds.

The order from Greg Abbott, the Texas governor, is the clearest sign yet that states in the south and west of the US may be forced to reverse course just a month after giving companies the green light to resume business.

“The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses,” Mr Abbott said. “This temporary pause will help our state corral the spread until we can safely enter the next phase of opening our state for business.”

Mr Abbott’s order was published just hours before Texas set another record for the number of new coronavirus cases in a single day. On Thursday, the state’s health department reported that almost 6,000 people had tested positive for the virus, taking the cumulative case count to 131,917.

The number of people in hospital with the virus also rose to a record high of 4,739, an increase of 350 compared with the previous day and a more than 470 per cent jump versus the start of April.

Even after accounting for the “temporary pause”, Texas has adopted one of the most aggressive economic reopening plans in the US, with the majority of businesses — including bars and restaurants — allowed to operate at 50 per cent capacity. Those measures will not be reversed by the new order.

The state has lifted restrictions far more quickly than New York, which on Thursday said that the number of patients hospitalised with the virus had fallen below 1,000 for the first time since March 18.

Dr Peter Hotez, a professor of virology at the Baylor School of Medicine in Houston, predicted that the surging number of hospitalisations would result in a leap in deaths within “a couple of weeks”, forcing Mr Abbott to shut down parts of the state’s economy.

He said: “The pause alone will maintain the status quo, but the status quo is unacceptable, it’s still showing a very aggressive rise. I believe he’ll have no choice but to dial things back.”

Mr Abbott’s decision came a day after Texas, California, Florida and four other states reported record one-day increases in coronavirus cases, triggering the biggest rise in new diagnoses nationwide since the outbreak began.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned on Thursday that the number of nationwide infections could be 10 times higher than suggested by official statistics due to the number of asymptomatic cases.

“Our best estimate right now is that for every case that’s reported, there actually are 10 other infections,” Robert Redfield, the CDC director, said during a telephone briefing with journalists.

The CDC said it had arrived at that conclusion by looking at blood samples to detect whether people had developed antibodies against the disease.

Almost 2.4m people have tested positive for coronavirus in the US, according to Johns Hopkins University, but the CDC’s analysis would suggest that 24m — or about 7 per cent of the population — have contracted the illness.

Data released on Thursday showed little sign that the new outbreak in southern and western states was abating. Florida said 5,028 people tested positive over the past 24 hours, near the record 5,472 reported the previous day. The state conducted almost 60,000 tests, a single-day record.

California’s total dropped from 7,149 new cases on Wednesday to 5,349, according to Governor Gavin Newsom, but that was still one of the highest totals for the state on record. Arizona also reported new cases near daily records, at 3,056.

Texas is the second state this week to halt its reopening plans because of the new outbreak, following similar steps taken by North Carolina on Wednesday.

Several big US companies have also stepped in to reverse reopening plans even without government guidance. Apple, for instance, closed its seven retail stores in Houston and will close a further 14 in Florida from Friday, while the Walt Disney Co put off the planned reopening of its California theme parks.

The prospect of reimposing lockdown restrictions in some of the US’s largest states has damped investor optimism that the world’s biggest developed economy will bounce back quickly.

The reversals come at a time that the country is already dealing with its worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression; on Thursday, the US labour department reported that another 1.48m Americans had applied for jobless benefits last week, the 12th straight week of more than 1m claims.

“A renewed upsurge in infections and resumed social distancing, either mandatory or voluntary, is likely to be a persistent risk, at least until a vaccine has been developed or treatment options sufficiently improve,” said Esther George, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, in an address to the Economic Club of Kansas City on Thursday. 

Mr Abbott’s executive order banning all elective surgeries and procedures in Texas is similar to measures taken in New York and New Jersey — the hardest-hit states at the outset of the US outbreak — back in March.

They cover both Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth regions — by far the largest metropolitan areas in the state — as well as the counties surrounding Austin, the state capital, and San Antonio.

Additional reporting by Mamta Badkar in New York

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