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Texas expands travel restrictions, launches pop-up hospital as coronavirus spreads

In Texas, Abbott said the state’s first ad hoc health care facility to respond to the pandemic will be the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, an original hotspot for the outbreak at the state level.

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Gov. Greg Abbott gestures to boxes of personal protective equipment during a press conference about the state's response to the coronavirus on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Austin. Photo credit: Nick Wagner/POOL via American-Statesman

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday ratcheted up travel restrictions into Texas during the new coronavirus pandemic, while announcing the state’s first pop-up hospital to deal with the crisis. He also said he was moving to “stop the release of dangerous felons” amid the outbreak.

Abbott said he was dramatically expanding a previous executive order that requires a 14-day self-quarantine for anyone flying into Texas from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut or New Orleans. Now, the state is also mandating a 14-day self-quarantine for anyone driving into Texas from anywhere in Louisiana and for those flying in from Miami, Atlanta, Detroit and Chicago, as well as anywhere in California and Washington.

In Texas, Abbott said the state’s first ad hoc health care facility to respond to the pandemic will be the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, an original hotspot for the outbreak at the state level. The convention center has the capacity for 250 beds “with plenty of room to massively expand that number if needed,” Abbott said.

At the same time, Abbott said there is “plenty of hospital capacity” to deal with the outbreak statewide and existing hospitals remain the “primary location” for treatment. He said the number of hospital beds available for coronavirus patients statewide more than doubled in the past week, with over 16,000 beds free as of Thursday. Most of those beds became available after he issued an executive order a week ago banning non essential surgeries in the state.

Abbott announced the latest executive orders during a news conference at the state capitol in Austin, and text of the orders was not immediately available. It was unclear, for example, how he was defining the kinds of prisoners who cannot be released.

Elaborating on the new Louisiana travel restrictions, Abbott said they will be enforced by the Texas Department of Public Safety “at and near entry points from Louisiana.” The restrictions do “not apply to travel related to commercial activities, military service, emergency response, health response or critical infrastructure functions,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s order comes as state and local officials continue to battle over whether to release as many as thousands of inmates awaiting trial from the Harris County Jail, where at least one inmate has tested positive for the new coronavirus and some 30 others are showing symptoms.

Advocates have fought for as many inmates as possible to be released from county jails, citing the increased risk of spread given close quarters and poor sanitary conditions. Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Sunday asked to intervene in a federal lawsuit in Harris County in which a federal judge is weighing whether and how to release Harris County Jail inmates.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo had been drafting an executive order for compassionate releases of inmates on no-cost bonds before trial, but shelved it over concerns that Paxton’s office would halt it.

There are, as of Sunday, at least 2,552 coronavirus cases in Texas, including 34 deaths, according to the latest figures from Texas Department of State Health Services. Almost half of Texas’ 254 counties — 118 — are reporting cases.

There have been 25,483 tests done in the state, according to the DSHS numbers.

Abbott said 176 Texans have been hospitalized due to the coronavirus, which Abbott emphasized is still a small fraction of those who have contracted the disease.

The growing spread of coronavirus throughout Texas comes as Abbott continues to resist calls to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order, a move that many of the state’s biggest counties and cities have already taken. Asked Sunday about the possibility of further statewide action, Abbott said he was waiting to see new federal guidance that is expected to be issued this week. Later in the afternoon, President Donald Trump announced that national social distancing guidelines would extend through April 30.

Emma Platoff and Jolie McCullough contributed to this report.

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

Patrick Svitek is the primary political correspondent for The Texas Tribune, and editor of The Blast, the Tribune's subscription-only daily newsletter for political insiders. Patrick logged countless miles on the 2016 campaign trail, covering the many Texas angles of the momentous presidential race. He previously worked for the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau. He graduated in 2014 from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He originally is from Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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september 2020

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