Originally published April 17, 2020, by Eleanor Dearman, El Paso Times.
AUSTIN — Texas will begin reopening its economy in stages after weeks of being shutdown as COVID-19 spread throughout the state infecting more than 17,000 people and killing 428 patients.
While the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb, Texans are struggling with massive job loses and major business closures.
Gov. Greg Abbott provided details on Friday afternoon on how he hopes to get the Texas economy up and running. He issued a new executive order establishing a “strike force” to aid in reopening retail businesses, restarting public activities and resume some nonessential health care treatments medical facilities.
“Some businesses, if fully open without better distancing standards, would be more likely to set us back, rather than propel us forward,” Abbott said. “A more strategic approach is required to ensure we don’t reopen only to have to shut down again.”
Abbott emphasized that the Texas economy would open in phases, not all at once
There are more than 17,300 cases of COVID-19 in Texas, and 192 of the state’s 254 counties are reporting cases, according to Department of State Health Services figures posted Friday.
There have been 428 fatalities. More than 169,500 tests have been done in Texas, which has an estimated population of approximately 29 million people.
State Democrats called on the governor to exercise caution as business restrictions are loosened, warning that without access to improved testing capabilities it may be difficult to track and contain the virus moving forward.
State Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, said he is heartened that Abbott is trying to increase testing but called on the governor to also expand Medicaid so Texans don’t have to worry about access to health care.
“We need increased testing, and until we get increased testing, we won’t have a sense of what we’re dealing with,” Blanco said.
What did Abbott open?
Abbott’s announcement comes a day after President Donald Trump issued new guidelines for reopening parts of the country. According to USA TODAY, he laid out a three phase approach for opening up different facets of the economy.
“We are not opening all at once, but one careful step at a time,” Trump said Thursday.
All stores in the state will be allowed to reopen on April 24 using a “retail to-go” model, Abbott said. Reopened retailers will deliver goods to customers’ cars or homes, but customers will not be able to go inside the stores.
“This temporary plan allows you to be able to access more retailers while also minimizing contact with others,” Abbott said.
State parks will reopen Monday, Abbott said. The governor was forced to close the state parks on April 7 because he wanted to promote social distance measures.
Visitors will be required to wear face masks and must keep 6 feet of distance from those who are not part of their household. Park visitors also cannot gather in groups larger than five, Abbott said.
Starting on April 21 at 11:59 a.m. and through May 8, Abbott said current restrictions on non-medically necessary surgeries will be relaxed. According to his office, exceptions include:
- Procedures that do not deplete hospital capacity or personal protection equipment needed to respond to COVID-19.
- Surgery or procedures performed in facilities that have agreed to reserve at least 25% of a hospital’s capacity for COVID-19 patients and to not request any PPE from public sources, whether federal, state or local.
“This will allow doctors to diagnose and treat medical conditions without needing to get an exception,” Abbott said.
He pointing to a diagnostics test for suspected cancer as an example.
Texas Medical Association President David Fleeger wrote to Abbott earlier this week asking that restrictions be eased.
“Decisions that are reasonable and prudent today may not be so in a week or two weeks,” the letter states. “At the same time, not every community will face the same challenges of a surge at the same time.”
Fleeger, in a statement, said physicians are “pleased that Gov. Abbott is taking a gradual, science-based approach to reopen the Texas economy safely.”
He also acknowledged that more PPE, more widespread testing and the ability to “track down positive cases based on those tests” is still needed.
“Patience has been a critical factor behind our successes so far,” Fleeger said. “We must remain patient, calm, and vigilant. Until we have a vaccine, social distancing remains the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. As the governor said, we must make sure we don’t reopen only to have to shut down again.”
While starting the process of opening businesses, Abbott maintained schools should remain closed for the remainder of the school year, after determining “it would be unsafe for students to gather in schools for the foreseeable future.”
Are more openings coming?
Abbott said additional openings will be announced April 27, following further input from advisers and medical professionals.
Austin banker James Huffines is heading up the strike force and Mike Toomey, a lobbyist, is the chief operating officer, Abbott announced. State officials Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Comptroller Glen Hegar are consulting members.
Toomey, a former chief of staff to Govs. Rick Perry and Bill Clements, has taken a leave of absence from Texas Lobby Group to take the position.
Health and Human Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt serves as chief medical officer.
State officials Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Comptroller Glen Hegar are consulting members. Dozens of others serve on a special advisory council to the task force.
More economic openings will be announced in May, “when it is determined that the infection rate continues to decline, that hospital capacity remains available, and when testing capacities are sufficient to detect and contain outbreaks of COVID-19.”
The governor promised “enhanced testing” activities to track the spread of the coronavirus as business activity increases in Texas. State officials claimed that “more and more testing” is headed to Texas.
Asked about specific testing benchmarks and strategies, Abbott noted recent conversations with the White House and federal officials.
“We know the visibility we have for a dramatic increase in the amount of testing we will be able to do,” Abbott said. “Not just testing those who may show symptoms, but also being able to test entire communities so that we have better information.”
Texans should anticipate a “massive amount of testing capability coming to Texas by late April or early May,” Abbott said, but he did not give specific numbers.
What have Democrats called for?
The Texas Legislature’s House Democratic Caucus said during a Thursday news conference that before easing social distancing measures in the state, the governor should:
- Increase testing for the coronavirus
- Expand Medicaid
- Ensure an adequate supply of personal protective equipment for essential workers, such as medical providers
- Provide more transparency about “what is being done to protect some of our most vulnerable fellow Texans,” particularly those in nursing and long-term care facilities
“Texas needs to follow the doctor’s orders when it comes to fighting the coronavirus. We all want business to reopen as soon as possible, but that can only happen when it is safe to do so,” state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, the House Democrat Caucus chair.
A survey of nearly 2,000 Texas physicians by the Texas Medical Association found that 78% of those surveyed said their practice is currently experiencing or anticipating a lack of PPE. Seventy-four percent said they attempted to order additional PPE and were unsuccessful.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said that everyone wants to be able to get out into the world and go back to work, but public safety has to be put first. Castro said he’d be supportive of the governor tapping the rainy day fund to help with COVID-19 response.
“The best way to get back to work is to beat the coronavirus,” he said in a news conference hosted over the phone by the Texas Democratic Party.
Following the announcement, Turner said reopening can only happen with robust testing in place. Texas continues to lag behind other states, he said.
“Texas continues to be in the bottom three states when it comes to COVID-19 testing per capita, and Gov. Abbott has failed to provide a clear plan for how Texas will increase testing,” Turner said. “We have heard for weeks that there are ‘encouraging signs’ more testing is coming, but it never seems to happen. We need to dramatically increase testing, right now.”