Virus Outbreak Texas

Gov. Greg Abbott, flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, left, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, speaks about Texas’ response to the coronavirus pandemic, during a press conference Tuesday at the state Capitol in Austin.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday told Texans to stay at home for the next month when not taking part in essential services, issuing an executive order to minimize social gatherings and in-person contact outside of homes. He also announced that schools would remain closed until at least May 4.

At a press conference at the Texas Capitol, Abbott purposefully stopped short of calling the decree a “stay-at-home order,” saying he wanted Texans to know they could still leave their homes to do things such as go to the grocery store or go for a jog. But when asked whether Tuesday’s order brings Texas up to speed with states that have issued shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders, Abbott answered, “It’s a fact.”

“If you’re not engaged in an essential service or activity, then you need to be at home for the purpose of slowing the spread of COVID-19,” he said.

Denton ISD Superintendent Jamie Wilson said the extended closure wasn’t a total surprise. After a recommendations from President Donald Trump on Sunday, he said local superintendents had planned to speak Wednesday to determine how much further school closures should stretch.

So far, local schools had been extending closures in two-week increments to remain flexible and in hopes of giving families enough heads-up to plan accordingly. Until Tuesday’s order from Abbott, many school district across Denton County had announced closures only through April 20. The last day of school was originally set for May 21.

In addition to Denton ISD, Aubrey, Argyle, Krum, Lake Dallas, Lewisville, Little Elm, Pilot Point, Ponder and Sanger ISDs jointly announced Tuesday that they’ll comply with Abbott’s order.

The state has outlined a list of more than a dozen sectors that provide essential services that comply with Abbott’s order, which is largely aligned with federal guidance on the issue. Those include health care, energy, food and critical manufacturing. Texas’ list adds religious services, which are not included in federal guidance.

The language of the order — specifically the use of the word “minimize” — and Abbott’s reluctance to call it a stay-at-home order caused some uncertainty 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.

Abbott later told The Texas Tribune that he said “minimize” instead of “cease” because “there could be some exceptions to the rule.”

“You never know what the exception would be, like let’s say there’s some emergency where you have to go do something or whatever the case may be,” he said. “And you don’t want to get people subject to being in violation of a law for a lack of clarity.”

Later, state Rep. Chris Turner, chairman 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 Abbott 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 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 persevere 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.

Schools look at long term

With a certainty of closures until early May, Wilson said Denton ISD teams will have to sort through how to proceed long-term. That might include tightening meal distribution efficiency in order to have less in-person contact. It might entail scaling back the number of workers and volunteers involved.

Even though more parents are at home as businesses shutter or have employees work from home, Wilson said parent support isn’t a complete substitute for professional teaching.

Whenever students are able to get back into school, he said teachers will work to get them up to speed on anything they might have missed.

“We will be able to fill in any learning gaps — that’s what we do in education,” Wilson said Tuesday afternoon.

Even if Denton and other area schools start on time in the fall, there are quite a few students who won’t be returning to campuses.

“Our biggest group of students that we won’t get to see any more are our seniors,” Wilson said. “That’s the group that has the biggest immediate impact.”

He said teachers and administrators are working to make sure those students are on track to graduate so they can head out into the workforce, into the military or pursue higher education.

Denton Record-Chronicle staff writer Marshall Reid contributed to this report.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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