Texas and Florida close bars after explosion of COVID-19 cases

Florida reported 8,942 new coronavirus cases Friday, shattering the previous record set days ago.

People stand in line to enter a bar on Sixth Street at night in downtown Austin on May 23, 2020.Alex Scott / Bloomberg via Getty Images

The governors of Florida and Texas closed down the bars Friday to slow down the spread of the coronavirus that has been rampaging at record levels through their states.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the bar shutdown as the state health department reported 8,942 new COVID-19 cases, shattering the previous record of 5,508 set just two days ago.

But DeSantis, who has been resisting calls to slow down the reopening of his state, left it to Halsey Beshears, the Secretary of Department of Business and Professional Regulation, to convey his message in a tweet.

Later, at a press conference in Naples, Florida, DeSantis said the order was issued because many people were disobeying the state’s reopening guidelines.

“People weren’t following it,” the governor said. “There was widespread noncompliance, and that led to issues. If folks just follow the guidelines, we’re going to be in good shape. When you depart from that, then it becomes problematic.”

With Friday's tally, Florida now has reported nearly 123,000 coronavirus case, with more than 32,000 of them confirmed in just the last seven days.

Back in April, when states like New York were being battered by COVID-19 while Florida was reporting far fewer cases, DeSantis claimed victory over the virus while on a visit with President Donald Trump at the White House.

"Everyone in the media was saying Florida would be like New York or Italy and that has not happened," DeSantis said. "We had a tailored and measured approach that not only helped our numbers be way below what anybody predicted, but also did less damage to our state going forward."

In Texas, Gov. Gregg Abbott made his move one day after he hit the pause button on Texas’ plans to reopen and the numbers of new cases continued to soar. He also put strict limits on restaurant dining in his new order.

“As I said from the start, if the positivity rate rose above 10% the State of Texas would take further action to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Abbott said in a statement. “At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars.”

All establishments that rake in more than 51 percent of income from alcohol had until noon to close their doors, although they would still be allowed to stay open for take-out or delivery sales.

Restaurants will be allowed to stay open, but starting Monday at less than 50 percent capacity.

Abbott’s order also extends to tourist-friendly businesses like tubing and rafting, which were ordered immediately closed. And public gatherings of 100 people or more will need to be approved by local governments, with certain unspecified exceptions, Abbott’s office said.

“We need everybody to religiously wear their masks and to social distance to see if we can get off that trajectory," Austin mayor Steve Alder said on MSNBC.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he's "not shocked or surprised by the uptick."

"As you open up America, you’re gonna have people getting sick," Patrick said on The Brian Kilmeade Show. "And there are gonna be a lot of young people and others, but they’re not all going to die."

In April, when Abbott first started reopening his state, Patrick was roundly criticized for suggesting that senior citizens would be willing to die for the U.S. to "get back to work."

Earlier this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Congress that increasingly younger adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s were getting infected because they have a "pent-up urge" to go out after weeks of quarantine.

But social distancing is almost impossible in bars, which are "emerging as fertile breeding grounds for the coronavirus," the Kaiser Health Network reported Friday. "They create a risky cocktail of tight quarters, young adults unbowed by the fear of illness and, in some instances, proprietors who don’t enforce crowd limits and social distancing rules."

In addition to Florida and Texas, bars have been identified as sources of coronavirus outbreaks in Louisiana and Idaho, according to KHN.

“People almost don’t want to social-distance if they go to the bar,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told KHN. “They’re going to be drinking alcohol, which is a social lubricant. People will often be loud, and if they have forceful speech, that’s going to create more droplets.”

The surprise moves by Florida and Texas come one day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned the true number of Americans who have been infected could top 20 million. On Wednesday, the U.S. saw a record number of new coronavirus cases in a single day, with 45,557 reported, according to a tally by NBC News.

Alabama has also been branded a COVID-19 hot-spot state after health officials on Thursday recorded 1,129 new cases --- the most in a single day since the start of the pandemic.

Vice President Mike Pence announced Friday he and members of the coronavirus task force will visit hard-hit Florida, Texas and Arizona in the coming days to assess the situation. All three states are led by governors who are Trump allies.

Pence said there were no plans to curtail Trump's political rallies like the one he recently held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where campaign workers and Secret Service agents were infected. And he refused to use the word "wave" to describe what was happening in states like Texas and Florida.

"We think it is most helpful if the American people understand what we are seeing across the South today is really outbreaks," Pence said. "Outbreaks in specific counties, and in some cases, outbreaks in specific communities."

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Friday that Trump needs to start setting a good example and start wearing a mask when he appears in public. That message got some reinforcement from an unlikely corner.

Meanwhile, with the pandemic showing no signs of slowing down, the Trump Administration asked the Supreme Court to strike down Obamacare, endangering insurance coverage for some 20 million Americans and likely wiping out their protection for pre-existing conditions.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, New Jersey was one of the hardest hit states. On Friday, however, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that public schools will reopen in the fall.

Students and staffers will be required to wear masks and classrooms and schedules will be reconfigured to allow for social distancing, Murphy's office insisted.

“The return to school will pose challenges, but we are confident that New Jersey’s school districts can move forward in a way that best serves the needs of their district while also achieving a safe environment for students and staff," Murphy said in a statement.

In Maryland, another state that aggressively combated the coronavirus, Gov. Larry Hogan announced he would begin reopening assisted living facilities that had been largely sealed off for months to protect their ailing and elderly occupants. Everybody will be required to wear masks and undergo regular testing.

“Maryland has consistently taken some of the earliest and most aggressive actions in the nation to protect older populations," Hogan said. "We will continue to lead in these efforts, while also allowing for more Marylanders to safely visit their loved ones.”