AUSTIN (KXAN) — Businesses across much of Texas will be allowed to expand capacity restrictions starting as early as Sept. 21, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday.

For the state’s 19 hospital regions where coronavirus hospitalizations are less than 15%, industries that were limited to 50% capacity may now expand to 75% capacity if they choose starting Sept. 21, including retail stores, restaurants, office buildings, manufacturing, museums and libraries and gyms. It’s not required for businesses to expand operations, but it is an option they now have.

Hospitals in those regions may return to ordinary elective surgical procedures immediately, Abbott also said.

Starting Sept. 24, Abbott said all nursing home facilities, assisted living centers, state supported living centers, and other long-term care facilities are allowed to reopen for visitation, providing that they comply with certain health protocols, and there must not be a COVID-19 outbreak in the facility. All of those facilities are now allowed to offer essential caregiver visits, he said.

“Texans have shown that we can address both the health and safety concerns of COVID, while also taking carefully measured steps to restore the livelihoods that Texas desperately need,” Gov. Abbott said.

Abbott indicated bars are “nationally recognized” as COVID-19 spreading locations, and will not be allowed to reopen at this time. He acknowledged that the state is focused on finding ways to get them open. Leaders have been working with bar owners and associations on methods of reopening, and “some bars and their associations have offered some very helpful ideas,” Abbott said.

“The fact is COVID does still exist, and most Texans remain susceptible,” Gov. Abbott said. “If we fully reopen Texas without limits, without safe practices, it could lead to an unsustainable increase in COVID that would require the possibility of being forces to ratchet back down.”

Abbott said the metric he’s relying most heavily on is hospitalizations. Medical experts have warned about increased spread in regions where 15% or more of hospitalizations are coronavirus-related.

“Hospitalizations is the most important information about the severity of COVID-19 in any particular region,” Gov. Abbott said. “It is also the most accurate information available on a regular basis.”

If a region experiences less than 15% of all hospitalizations being coronavirus-related for seven consecutive days, then the region is safe enough to allow additional openings, Abbott said.

All Texas regions, except Victoria, Laredo and the Lower Rio Grande Valley have COVID-19 hospitalizations less than 15%, according to data provided by the Governor’s office.

Abbott said the spread of COVID-19 has steadily and significantly declined, and the hospitalizations have been cut by more than two-thirds. The number of active cases has been cut in half, he said, and the number of people recovering from the virus continues to increase.

The Texas Democratic party criticized Abbott’s moves toward reopening in a statement, calling the previous reporting system “flawed” and expressing concerns about a surge in cases following previous reopening efforts.

“Now, after months of being lied to, the governor wants local leaders and Texans to trust him. He wants them to believe it is safe to reopen their businesses and go back to work without good information to keep their employees or customers safe,” said Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa. “Texas needs leaders they can rely on and leaders they can trust.”

On Monday, the Texas Department of State Health Services changed the way it reports the state’s positivity rate, adding two additional rates to help it more accurately track the number of cases. The original method served as a “reliable proxy” for most of the pandemic, but became less reliable in August when a surge in backlogged cases was reported. This caused new cases and new test results to get out of sync, DSHS said.

Texas is scheduled to receive millions of 15-minute tests per month that will more quickly notify people if they are infected with COVID-19, Abbott said in the press conference.

The biggest reason for the improvements in Texas, doctors advised Abbott, is because Texans are taking COVID-19 seriously. The best practices that leaders have put in place, including social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing, are the best defense against the virus until vaccines are available.

“As we go about the process of continuing to contain COVID, we will also continue to work to open up Texas,” Abbott said.