Texas and Florida reverse reopenings as US outbreak hits record

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Texas’ governor has ordered all bars to close and limited public gatherings to fewer than 100 people in the second attempt in as many days to snuff out a sudden jump in new coronavirus cases in the state.

The executive order from Governor Greg Abbott, which also requires restaurants to cut their indoor dining to half capacity, came as Florida reported a big rise in new cases, recording 8,933 infections — or nearly double the 4,974 cases reported on Thursday. Florida authorities also banned alcohol from bars across the state.

Florida and Texas are two of more than a dozen states in the US south and west that have seen 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 disease expert helping to lead the US fight against the pandemic, said some states may have to return to full “shelter-in-place” policies, but advised that they should first start with more limited restrictions such as avoiding crowds and wearing 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.

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“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.”

On Thursday, Texas recorded nearly 6,000 new cases, a one-day record for the state and the biggest increase in the US — which recorded a national record with 42,000 new infections.

Texas was not due to report its daily numbers until the evening, but Arizona, another western state that has seen a sharp increase, announced on Friday it had 3,428 new cases in the preceding 24 hours. California has also seen a surge in cases, 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 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 Peter Wells, Eric Platt and Hannah Kuchler

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