AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Hours after he announced a public health emergency in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott took part in a primetime virtual town hall to answer questions about what comes next. The Thursday evening event was broadcast live across Texas on Nexstar Media Group stations.
“I know that many of you are concerned, maybe scared, maybe confused,” Governor Abbott said at the start of the town hall. “We are dealing with a very real challenge, a challenge that we must collectively respond to,” Abbott added.
The Governor then warned Texans about a coming spike in positive cases of COVID-19.
“This time next week, there will be thousands of people who will have tested positive. In two weeks, probably tens of thousands,” Abbott cautioned.
The Governor’s executive order calls on Texans to avoid social gatherings of more than ten people, bans dine-in service at restaurants, and closes bars and gyms. The order also restricts visits to nursing homes, retirement centers, and long-term care facilities, except to provide essential care.
Abbott also ordered all schools in Texas to close until April 3. It’s possible that the order could be extended, keeping schools closed through the end of the school year.
“We want to make sure that first and foremost we’re making public health decisions based on the best science,” said Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath. He said the agency will base its decisions on when to reopen schools on data about the spread of the virus.
Governor Abbott waived STAAR test requirements for this school year. That means the state assessment test will not be a factor in determining academic progress for students. Morath said that will allow local teachers and principals to decide whether students advance to the next grade.
“These are unique times that call for unique solutions,” Abbott said. “We’re going to be flexible delivering solutions that work in our society.”
Oil prices drop amid coronavirus concerns
Coronavirus concerns are contributing to a sharp drop in the price of oil. On Friday, the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude sold for less than half of what it did one year before.
During Thursday night’s town hall, Governor Abbott sought to put the price drop in perspective.
“The price of a barrel right now is exactly where it was in 2016,” Abbott said. He noted that there are bigger concerns for other sectors of the economy, like the restaurant industry and the entertainment industry.
Meanwhile, grocery stores are seeing demand so strong it’s straining their ability to keep shelves stocked. Abbott said he believes Texans will be able to keep buying the supplies they need.
“These stores have both the flexibility, but also the supply chain to make sure they’re going to be able to weather this challenge,” Abbott said. “I feel very confident about their supply chains.”
Governor answers COVID-19 test questions
Governor Abbott said last week that everyone who needs a COVID-19 test would be able to get one. But many Texans have expressed frustration over the difficulty of getting those tests. The Governor tried to address those frustrations during Thursday night’s town hall.
“There’s a difference between everyone who wants a COVID test and everyone who needs a COVID test,” Abbott said. “The only people who need a COVID test are those who are showing signs or symptoms of having COVID-19, and there’s no reason to give that test to those who are otherwise healthy,” Abbott continued. The Governor then deferred to Dr. John Hellerstedt, who leads the Department of State Health Services.
Hellerstedt emphasized that private laboratories are helping to bolster the state’s capacity to test for COVID-19. “We’ll have more testing sites around the country that private laboratories will make available, again thousands of tests per week and maybe even more in a very short period of time,” Hellerstedt said.
Governor Abbott emphasized that Texans should consult with a doctor before trying to get a COVID-19 test.
“If you think you have it, you should call your doctor and visit with your doctor about what the correct approach is,” Abbott explained. “The COVID test is going to be provided for free to anybody who qualifies for it. The qualifier is a prescription by doctor,” Abbott said.
Advice for those who ignore the warnings
Images of people on spring break ignoring warnings about the coronavirus sparked some anger and concern. The video highlighted that despite all the warnings, some people still don’t take the coronavirus risk seriously.
“I feel sorry for those folks,” said Chief Nim Kidd, head of the Texas Division of Emergency Management. “They need to listen to their public health authorities,” Kidd added. “It’s so important to get this message out right now.”
Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen said it may not be possible to convince everyone that the coronavirus threat is real, but he said there are other logical reasons to follow the health recommendations.
“What I would want to convince them of is the sooner we comply with CDC guidelines in these executive orders, the sooner what they think maybe isn’t true will go away,” Bonnen said.
“If they don’t like what’s going on, which none of us really do, the sooner we comply, the sooner we can get back to normal. That’s what I would ask,” Bonnen explained.