Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that the rollback of the restrictions was automatic under Gov. Abbott's order and did not require a county order.
McLennan County officials Sunday announced measures to close bars again and tighten restrictions on retail businesses and elective medical procedures after the Waco region’s hospitalizations for COVID-19 exceeded a state-imposed threshold for seven days in a row.
State officials reported Sunday that COVID-19 patients accounted for 17.8% of hospital capacity in a five-county region known as Trauma Service Area M, including McLennan, Falls, Hill, Limestone and Bosque counties. That rate has been over 15% since Nov. 23 and has been steadily increasing.
An October order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that allowed bars to reopen, elective surgeries to be performed and other businesses such as restaurants and stores to expand 75% capacity. But those reopenings are to be rolled back if an area’s hospitalization rate exceeds 15% for seven consecutive days.
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“What that means is that bars would close, and restaurants would go from 75 back to 50%,” Felton said Sunday. Felton said that under the governor's order the rollback is automatic and lasts until the rate falls below 15% for seven consecutive days.
Other businesses now limited to 50% capacity include retail stores, office buildings, manufacturing facilities, gyms, exercise facilities and classes, museums and libraries.
Felton warned last week that McLennan County’s growing caseload of COVID-19 meant the rollback of reopenings was likely. He said Sunday that he doesn’t expect the rate to improve in the short term.
“If you think about it, we were in an upward trend before the Thanksgiving holiday,” he said. “We’re expecting there will be an increased amount of positive cases because of the holiday and the fact people are getting together. Most of the transmission is within family groups, friend groups and close social groups. The effects of that could go on for the next couple of weeks.”
Felton said local hospital officials have reassured him that they have plans to handle a surge of cases and expand capacity for COVID-19 cases.
“We’re very fortunate to have really well-managed and capable medical facilities,” he said. Still, he said he is concerned about strain on the system and the consequences of delaying elective procedures for people who have long-term health conditions.
Waco hospitals had 94 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday, the last time the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District COVID-19 dashboard was updated. There were 212 new cases on Wednesday in McLennan County and an estimated 1,408 active cases. Since the beginning of the pandemic in March, the health district has logged 185 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in McLennan County.