By PATRICK SVITEK
The Texas Tribune
Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that he will let the state’s stay-at-home order expire Thursday as scheduled and allow businesses to begin reopening in phases the next day, the latest ramp-up in his push to restart the Texas economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.
First to open Friday: retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls. But they will only be allowed to operate at 25% capacity. Museums and libraries will also be allowed to open at 25% capacity, but hands-on exhibits must remain closed.
Abbott said a second phase of business reopenings could come as soon as May 18 – as long as the state sees “two weeks of data to confirm no flare-up of COVID-19.” That second phase would allow businesses to expand their occupancy to 50%, according to the governor.
In a TV interview following the news conference, he suggested he may have more business reopenings to announce before the May target date.
Abbott made the announcement during a news conference at the Texas Capitol, which he began by saying he would let the stay-at-home order expire because it “has done its job to slow the growth of COVID-19.” While the spread of the virus in Texas has slowed down throughout April, the number of cases is still increasing day to day, and it is unclear if the state has yet seen its peak.
“Now it’s time to set a new course, a course that responsibly opens up business in Texas,” Abbott said, flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. “Just as we united as one state to slow COVID-19, we must also come together to begin rebuilding the lives and the livelihoods of our fellow Texans.”
Abbott said his new order “supersedes all local orders” saying those businesses must remain closed. He also said his order overrules any local government that wants to impose a fine or penalty for not wearing a mask – something the latest statewide rules encourage but do not mandate.
He stressed that his order “gives permission to reopen, not a requirement,” and businesses can stay shuttered if they would like.
At the same time, Abbott said he is holding off on reopening certain businesses for the time, including barbershops, hair salons, bars and gyms. He said he hopes those businesses can open “on or no later than mid-May.”
Abbott said all his executive orders during the pandemic have carried a potential punishment of up to a $1,000 fine or 180 days in jail. For the latest order, he said, the “more primary enforcement would be either the local level or the regulatory level,” noting a business could lose its license if it does not comply.
In unveiling his new order, Abbott established a different standard aimed at rural counties with little coronavirus presence, saying counties with five or fewer cases can effectively skip to the second phase and reopen businesses at 50% capacity.
Abbott’s new order comes as questions continue to persist about Texas’ low testing level and what is being done to increase capacity. State Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement that Texas is “near last in the nation on per capita testing and Gov. Abbott didn’t present a clear plan how that’s going to change, even though experts agree that widespread testing is essential to any reopening plan.”
“We don’t know the magnitude of the problem,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said during a Texas Democratic Party conference call after Abbott’s news conference. “Without robust testing, then we continue to remain in the dark.”
Abbott mostly focused Monday on contact tracing, or the practice of tracking down and isolating all the people someone who tested positive for the virus has come into contact with. He said Texas is already in the second phase of its contact tracing plan, adding 1,000 tracers on top of the existing 1,100 and launching a statewide app and call center to improve the process.
Abbott continued to talk of a coming increase in testing and said the state soon would “easily exceed our goal of 25,000 tests per day.” The state has been adding an average about 14,000 tests per day over the past week, according to figures from the Texas Department of State Health Services. Still, the total number of tests done as of Monday – 290,517 – remained about 1% of Texas’ nearly 29 million people.
The leaders of some of the state’s biggest metropolitan areas, a mostly Democratic group, were generally measured in their responses to Abbott’s latest announcements.
Speaking shortly after Abbott in Houston, the city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, told reporters that Abbott’s new order “pretty much will take these measures, the ability to [issue] stay-at-home orders and things of that nature, out of our hands locally.” He said he hoped Abbott’s plan works but offered a “cautionary note,” pointing out that there is still no vaccine and statistics show the “virus is still here,” even as local measures have slowed it down.
Houston is part of Harris County, which has reported 5,827 positive cases of COVID-19.
Another big-city leader, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins – who has had to announce the death of 84 residents infected by the virus – was similarly cautious in his response.
“The first priority of those you elect is to keep you safe,” he stated. “I’ve asked Dallas County Health and Human Services Director Dr. Philip Huang and physician leaders, including those specializing in infectious disease and epidemiology from area hospitals, to carefully review the governor’s orders and will wait to hear from them. Most other plans that open businesses in phases don’t put places like movie theaters in the first group to open. The orders have changed but the science that will keep us safe has not. I believe North Texans will focus not on ‘what can they do’ but rather ‘what should they do.’ It will be imperative for North Texans to make good choices particularly where these orders veer from the advice of public health experts. Following science is the best way to keep safe and open the economy.”
Dallas County reported the second highest number of cases, at 3,105. Which may be why Dallas City Council member Adam Bazaldua was more vocal about his concerns in a statement released to the press Tuesday morning.
“We have worked very hard and successfully flattened the curve in Dallas County, and by the Governor’s new orders, we are just one weekend away from that progress being lost. I applaud those businesses who have already come out against reopening, despite the governor’s orders,” he stated. “My main priority is the safety and well-being of the people of the city of Dallas and I refuse to allow political pressure and/or economic impacts compromise that. Data has been clear and the health professionals have made their determinations, which differ from the orders issued.
“This isn’t about a difference of opinion; this is a matter of life and death.”
Abbott’s announcement also came with news for entities that have been allowed to stay open through the pandemic, such as churches. He said his latest rules allow them to “expand their capacity even more” as long as they follow social distancing practices. The details of that expansion were not immediately available.
He said outdoor sports would be allowed as long as they are limited to four participants – allowing for sports like golf or tennis – and social distancing is also respected. The goal of the second phase would be to permit more participants.
The announcement also lets all licensed health care professionals return to work, though there are a few restrictions, he said. Hospitals must keep 15% of their capacity for COVID-19 patients.
Abbott’s announcement Monday came as the number of coronavirus cases in Texas reached at least 25,297, including 663 deaths, according to the latest figures from the Texas Department of State Health Services. More than 80% of Texas’ 254 counties – 205 – are reporting cases.
Raga Justin/The Texas Tribune contributed to this report.
This article was first published at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/04/27/texas-reopening-coronavirus-greg-abbott/ by The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state.