AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday said his statewide stay-at-home order will expire Thursday as scheduled, while Texas malls, stores, restaurants, movie theaters and restaurants may open the next day — with 25% occupancy.
Barber shops, hair salons, gyms, massage establishments, tattoo parlors, video arcades and bowling alleys must wait until mid-May at the earliest to reopen, he said.
Outdoor sports such as golf and tennis may resume with no more than four participants in a match, and they must observe social distancing guidelines, he said.
Businesses will be free to choose not to open, and in less populated counties with five or fewer confirmed cases, they will be able to open at 50% capacity, he said.
Museums and public libraries can reopen, again with the 25% capacity limitation. However, a city doesn’t have to let them do so, Abbott said. And in shopping malls, he said, food courts, play areas and interactive displays and settings must remain closed, he said.
The Republican governor “strongly” recommended that Texans wear masks while in public. However, he said local requirements imposed by Democratic-controlled commissioners courts in Dallas and Harris counties — as well as elsewhere — are superseded by his new orders. No one can be fined by a locality for not wearing a facial covering, he said.
“Opening Texas must occur in phases,” Abbott said. “Obviously, not all businesses can open all at once. A more strategic approach is required to ensure that we don’t reopen only to have to close down again.”
Abbott said the loosening restrictions he imposed in recent weeks halt spread of the lethal new coronavirus is the reward for impressive compliance by Texans with his requests for self-isolation and social distancing.
But “the price has been steep,” as many Texans lost jobs and can’t pay their bills, he said.
While he’ll continue to stress social distancing and rely on doctors for advice, Abbott said he’ll keep tight protections of “the most vulnerable,” such as nursing home residents, while letting many others exercise more discretion as to what is safe in the age of COVID-19.
“It’s entrepreneurs who drive the Texas economy,” he said. “They need to be unleashed.”
Speaking of the greater freedoms, Abbott urged, “We are Texans. We got this.”
Abbott proposed to reopen more businesses in three phases.
In the first, which begins Friday, many establishments, including virtually all types of retailers, may operate at 25% capacity.
“Essential businesses” such as grocery and hardware stores have already proven that strategy effective by using that model to remain open during the stay-at-home order, Abbott said.
The Republican governor has faced pressure from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other movement conservatives in the Texas GOP for a near-complete rollback of restrictions of who can work and where people can shop or dine.
On April 17, Abbott said public schools and state universities would remain shuttered for the rest of this academic year. But he allowed a resumption of retail “to go” service, elective medical procedures and state parks. All took effect, with certain conditions, last week.
But he also vowed to announce Monday some “additional ways to open Texas up.” Abbott said they would include phased-in strategies that maintain safety by requiring “comprehensive testing” and assurances that hospitals have beds, staff and equipment to handle any surge in infections.
“We’re going to be making an announcement opening up so many different types of businesses, where you’re going to be able to go to a hair salon, you’re going to be able to go to any type of retail establishment you want to go to … with a structure in place that will ensure that we slow the spread of the coronavirus,” Abbott said on “The Chad Hasty Show” in Lubbock on Wednesday.
“It won’t be fully opened but it will be opened in strategic ways,” he said.
In order to avoid a spike in new coronavirus cases after it reopens, experts say the state will need robust testing capabilities and rapid contact tracing.
Some projections suggest the state may need to test 40,000 people a day. Abbott has said daily numbers should be in the range of at least 25,000 to 30,000. So far, the state’s daily tally has broken 20,000 just one, on Saturday.
Abbott is expected to announce further details about a ramp up in testing and contact tracing Monday. The state has plans to bring on 1,000 new people to track down those who have had contact with people carrying the virus. The cost or where they will be stationed is not yet clear.
For weeks, Democrats have been wary of Abbott’s plan to reopen the Texas economy saying there are still numerous questions about the state’s testing capability and amount of personal protective equipment for workers.
They have also questioned how the state would enforce any continued social distancing guidelines and how officials could measure if businesses were safe to reopen.
Those questions remain unanswered, state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, the leader of the House Democratic Caucus, said Monday on Twitter.
“We all want businesses reopened as soon as possible, but we have to follow doctors’ orders for it to be safe to do so,” he said.
Illustrating counter pressure on Abbott from the most staunchly conservative quarters of the Texas GOP, though, was a letter GOP state Sen. Angela Paxton, of McKinney, wrote him Thursday.
Paxton urged the governor to scrap his designations of “essential” and “nonessential” businesses and replace them with a look at compliance. She would define that as whether a business, church, recreational facility or other entity has gone along with “the already commonly accepted health guidelines of hand washing, good hygiene and social distancing.”
“Reopening Texas is urgent so that families and businesses can once again flourish in physical, mental and economic well-being,” Paxton wrote.
“Consumers will naturally reengage to the extent they feel safe,” she said.
Recently, seven West Texas mayors wrote Abbott saying they want to reopen, though with “strict physical distancing measures in place.” They asked for autonomy, so they can “surgically adjust” local restrictions using “real-time” data about their areas’ infection rates. Most of the mayors are from GOP-dominated cities. Notably missing was El Paso Mayor Dee Margo who, though a Republican, presides over a Democratic-dominated city.
“Every business that can operate at low or mitigated risk should be operating,” wrote the mayors of Abilene, Amarillo, Big Spring, Lubbock, Midland, Odessa and San Angelo. “Each city can best determine how to implement these measures in their own city.”
On April 16, Trump issued “Opening Up America Again,” a set of recommendations for governors to follow that include three phases of reopening. The White House plan specifies “gates” that should precede each phase — including a downward trend over 14 days of either documented cases of COVID-19 or positive tests as a percentage of total tests administered.
As of Monday, 663 Texans had died for reasons related to the virus.
The number of newly reported cases in Texas continues to spike and dip each day, but as of Monday had not yet shown a continued downward trend. More than 960 new positive tests were reported on Friday, up from the more than 860 reported a day earlier, according to state data. On Monday, frequently the lowest day for new cases of the week, there were 666.
As of Monday, more than 290,000 Texans had been tested — about 1% of the state’s population of 28.9 million people. There were 25,297 cases.
Texas has consistently ranked near the bottom among states in coronavirus testing per capita. In one compilation of state data on Monday, Texas was in the bottom five.
Ten days ago, Abbott ended a hold he’d placed last month on elective medical procedures and surgeries. The move was one of several aimed at preserving sufficient hospital beds and medical personnel for a possible deluge of coronavirus cases. Usage increased but at manageable rates. Many experts credited widespread compliance with social distancing edicts.
On Sunday in Dallas, one of the state’s hardest-hit areas, just 56% of the city’s nearly 5,700 hospital beds were occupied and 35% of its 942 ventilators were in use.
The latest Abbott order on elective procedures, from April 17, allows health care facilities to perform them as long as they don’t deplete hospital capacity or personal protective equipment needed for the coronavirus outbreak. Facilities can perform surgeries if they reserve at least 25% of their hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients and pledge not to request masks, gowns or other protective gear from governmental sources. The order lasts through May 8.
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