Gov. Greg Abbott imposed a mask requirement on most of Texas, and Gov. Ron DeSantis pleaded with Floridians to avoid tight spaces and crowds Thursday as their states contended with an explosion of COVID-19 cases ahead of the July Fourth weekend.
Mr. Abbott, a Republican who resisted a statewide mandate, said Texans living in counties with 20 or more cases must cover their mouths and noses in public spaces. There are exceptions for children younger than 10, those with medical conditions and those who are eating or exercising.
Violators will get a verbal warning the first time and a $250 fine the second time.
Also, the governor said cities and counties may ban gatherings of 10 or more people. The order takes effect at noon Friday.
Mr. Abbott said cases have quadrupled to over 6,000 per day compared with an average of 1,500 in late May. The percentage of tests coming back positive and hospitalizations are soaring, too.
“We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast there is little margin for error,” he said. “If we want to avoid lockdowns, if we want to protect those we care about, we need all Texas to join this effort.”
Mr. DeSantis, meanwhile, used a high-profile visit from Vice President Mike Pence to warn residents about the three C’s: avoid “closed spaces,” “crowds” and “close contact.”
“In Florida, when it’s hot, people retreat to the AC. They get close together, they have a party,” the Republican governor said. “You’re much better being in the 95-degree heat than being in that closed space with poor ventilation.
“We’re also saying avoid large crowds. The smaller the group, the better,” said Mr. DeSantis.
Mr. Abbott and Mr. DeSantis were eager to reopen businesses and institutions after President Trump asked Americans to work and learn at home and to avoid large gatherings from mid-March to the end of April.
Now, their states are consistently posting single-day highs for COVID-19 cases and showing upticks in hospital visits, leading to charges that they were too hasty.
Florida posted over 10,000 cases midweek — a record — as the country as a whole reported its biggest daily caseload since the start of the pandemic, with over 50,000.
So far, over 128,000 people in the U.S. have died from the disease, which was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December.
The surge in known infections of the coronavirus is concentrated in Sun Belt states, including California. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, mandated wearing masks statewide as counties closed beaches and other gathering spots.
Mr. Abbott had left the decision to mandate masks up to local officials but shifted course Thursday.
“Wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Mr. Abbott said. “Likewise, large gatherings are a clear contributor to the rise in COVID-19 cases. Restricting the size of groups’ gatherings will strengthen Texas’ ability to corral this virus.”
Experts say states should have a positive rate of 10% or less as they test for the virus to be sure they are catching enough infections within the community. Yet rates have soared well into the double digits in hot spots across the South and West, leading experts to worry that the disease is spreading rapidly and not just showing up because of increased testing.
Mr. Trump said Thursday that his administration is executing a solid pandemic response but acknowledged flare-ups in parts of the country.
“We haven’t totally succeeded yet. We will soon,” Mr. Trump said. “But we haven’t killed all of the virus yet.”
Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden said Mr. Trump has already failed. He said the outbreaks are so bad that other nations view the U.S. as a “global health risk.”
He was referring to the European Union’s decision to begin admitting visitors from some countries but did not include the U.S., Brazil and Russia, which have high caseloads.
“While other nations took steps to get control over COVID-19, Trump took no responsibility,” Mr. Biden said. “And now, a president who started his term by writing hateful travel bans is responsible for getting the American people banned from traveling. His presidency is an outrage from start to finish.”
The president said his own travel bans protected the U.S. from deeper misery. He also cast the U.S. as a scientific leader in the COVID-19 fight.
“We’re speeding the delivery of new treatments, including anti-viral steroids, convalescent plasma, and other therapies. We have therapeutics that are really, really looking good,” Mr. Trump said.
He also said three vaccine candidates are “really looking good” as companies report early clinical data. Administration officials have said a vaccine probably won’t be available for widespread use until early next year.
In the meantime, officials are pleading with Americans to wear face coverings, maintain physical distance from others and wash their hands regularly.
Mr. Pence said young people must do their part. Many of those testing positive in Florida are in their 30s, leading to fears that younger people are crowding into bars and other tight spaces without taking precautions.
“I have three 20-somethings in my family, and I know the strong independent streak of young people. I know the desire of young people to socialize as we approach this Independence Day weekend,” Mr. Pence said. Heed “the guidance of practicing social distancing. Wear a mask if you’re not able to practice social distancing, or wear a mask if state and local authorities direct you to do so in the situation that you’re in.”
The disease is less deadly among younger people, a point that Mr. DeSantis has highlighted repeatedly, as Florida’s death toll remains far lower than places like New York.
Yet officials say young people might pass the virus to vulnerable people.
“No young person would ever want to unintentionally infect a mom, a dad, a grandmother, a grandfather or an elderly friend,” Mr. Pence said.
Some in Congress say Mr. Trump could set an example for everyone by wearing a mask more frequently. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Mr. Biden have said a nationwide mandate to wear masks in public is overdue.
Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University, said that while he is “not sure the federal government has that power … every state should require masks when in contact with others, especially in indoor spaces.”
The Myrtle Beach City Council in South Carolina on Thursday mandated the wearing of masks in retailers, eateries and other enclosed spaces because of fears that the virus was spreading rapidly in the vacation hot spot. The mandate is scheduled to last through Labor Day.
Some beaches in Florida and California will be closed for the holiday weekend. Nebraska health officials told people holding July Fourth gatherings to keep lists of guests for potential contact-tracing.
The Oregon Health Authority is instructing residents to “evaluate before you celebrate.”
“The safest choice this holiday is to celebrate at home,” the agency said. “If you choose to celebrate in other ways, activities that take place outdoors, allow for enough room to maintain physical distancing and involve fewer people are lower risk than activities that take place indoors, don’t allow for physical distancing and involve more people.”
⦁ Seth McLaughlin, Lauren Meier and Shen Wu Tan contributed to this report.