This article was originally posted by Robert T. Garrett, James Barragán and Allie Morris for Dallas News.
AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott lifted some restrictions he put on Texans during the coronavirus pandemic but said Friday that public schools should remain closed for the rest of the academic year.
While teachers may return to campuses under controlled conditions to conduct remote instruction and perform administrative duties, Abbott said traditional public and charter schools should stay shuttered to help reduce spread of the novel coronavirus.
Next week, though, Texas will allow a resumption of retail “to go” service, let health care providers perform more elective procedures and reopen state parks, Abbott announced.
While urging Texans to continue to take precautions, Abbott said:
- Starting April 24, retailers who previously were considered nonessential may begin providing pickup service or home delivery for customers;
- Starting Wednesday, in a bow to doctors and hospitals, restrictions on elective procedures and surgeries will be loosened. He cited biopsies for cancer as one example.
- On Monday, state parks will again open their gates, though visitors will have to wear masks or face coverings and keep at least six feet away from other visitors who aren’t members of their families.
The governor acted a day after President Donald Trump outlined procedures he said states should follow for reducing public-health restrictions.
Abbott also named a “strike force” to advise him on how to conduct a phased reopening of the state economy.
“We have demonstrated we can corral the coronavirus,” Abbott said. But he cautioned, “In opening Texas, we must be guided by data and by doctors.”
On Thursday, Trump issued recommendations for governors to follow that include three phases of reopening, but also “gates” that should precede each – 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 Friday, 414 Texans had died for reasons related to the virus.
“Deaths, while far too high, will not come close to the early dire predictions,” Abbott noted.
The number of newly reported cases in Texas continue to spike and dip each day, but have yet not shown a continued downward trend. Over 960 new positive tests were reported on Thursday, up from the 800 reported a day earlier, according to state data.
Not quite 160,000 Texans have been tested — just more than half of 1% of the state’s population of 28.9 million people. Texas ranks very low among states in coronavirus testing per capita.
Asked if reopening as he proposes will be safe, with such a low rate of testing, Abbott replied, “It will be going up quite a bit.” Citing recent talks with the White House, he said Texans can expect “a massive amount of testing capability coming to Texas by late April or early May.”
Public health officials have warned that pulling back on restrictions too soon could prompt another wave of infections.
“We have to proceed cautiously,” said John Carlo, a physician who’s chief executive of Prism Health North Texas and former medical director for the Dallas County health department. “We have to be prepared if something happens to shut back down if the circumstances require us to.”
On a Friday press call, prominent Texas Democrats said Abbott should “follow doctors’ orders” — that is, heed the advice of federal government infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Texas Medical Association, who have warned that a lack of testing could make easing of stay-at-home orders premature.
“It’s not a plan at all,” U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-San Antonio, said of Abbott’s announcement. “It’s a hoax.”
Castro also denounced the naming of a top lobbyist to help run Abbott’s panel on the reopening and the role big political donors could play as the state allocates billions in federal coronavirus aid in coming months.
Austin superlobbyist Mike Toomey, who was former Gov. Rick Perry’s chief of staff, will oversee the day-to-day operations of the governor’s Strike Force to Open Texas while retired Austin banker James R. Huffines will chair the group.
An Abbott spokesman declined comment on Castro’s criticisms.
Also disappointed with Abbott’s moves, but from a different standpoint, was the state’s restaurant industry.
“We were hopeful for greater clarity from Governor Abbott about safely reopening our restaurant dining spaces today,” the Texas Restaurant Association said in a written statement. It said more than 1 million Texas restaurant employees were adversely affected after Abbott barred dine-in service last month.
The group released recommendations on how eateries might resume on-premises dining, with employees wearing gloves or masks and possibly using signage or floor markings to encourage social distancing.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom outlined plans earlier this week to reopen the economy that could involve temperature checks at restaurants and staggered start times at school. But the Democratic governor said a number of conditions would have to be met before a loosening of the state’s stay-at-home order, including at least two weeks of declining hospitalizations, expanded testing and more personal protective equipment for health care workers.
On April 27, Abbott will announce “additional ways to open Texas up,” he said. He did not elaborate.
He did say they will 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.
Democrats, though, pointed to contradictions in Abbott’s Friday announcement.
If some businesses will reopen, but schools stay closed, how will working parents with children in school cope, Carrollton Democratic Rep. Michelle Beckley asked.
“There is no plan for child care for these new employees who are now having to go back to work,” she said.
Trump’s move in effect put on the governors the burden of balancing public health against the desire to return to work and a sense of normalcy.
Polls show Abbott, who usually takes care not to alienate his party’s social conservatives and tea-party activists, to be Texas’ most popular Republican statewide officeholder.
In recent days, though, some movement conservatives have grown agitated. They criticized Abbott for locking down the state too tightly — or at least, failing to rein in or confront Democrats such as Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo as they issued orders to stay at home and wear masks.
On Thursday, a small group of people protesting Abbott’s COVID-19 orders gathered outside the Executive Mansion in Austin.
In his Friday executive order easing his earlier ban on elective medical procedures, though, Abbott delivered social conservatives a victory: He did not specify that abortions could resume. Recently, Attorney General Ken Paxton has fought a legal battle with abortion clinics, arguing Abbott’s postponement of elective medical procedures should apply to abortions as well.
Asked whether his order on elective surgery will ease restrictions on abortions, Abbott replied, “Ultimately that will be a decision for courts to make.” Pressed further, he acknowledged, “That is not part of this order.”
Abbott’s order relaxes a ban on non-emergency surgeries that had sparked complaints of patients going without urgent care and hospitals reeling from new financial hits.
The new order allows health care facilities to perform medical procedures, so long as they won’t deplete hospital capacity or personal protective equipment needed to address 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.
Dr. John Thoppil, president of the Texas Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said the relaxation is welcome. His office had to cancel procedures checking women for signs of uterine or other cancers.
“Are they emergent? No,” he said. “Are they urgent? Yes. Would a delay of a few months potentially delay outcomes? Yes. … But people were so scared. … Nobody was willing to test it.”
Abbott’s Strike Force to Open Texas includes Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Paxton and Comptroller Glenn Hegar as consulting members. Its top medical advisers include former federal Medicare and Medicaid commissioner Mark McClellan, Dell Medical School professor of infectious disease Parker Hudson of Austin and the two physicians who have been guiding the governor in recent weeks — state health commissioner John Hellerstedt and former Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond. Hellerstedt was named the strike force’s chief medical officer.
The strike force will have a 39-member Special Advisory Council, Abbott announced.
Among business leaders Abbott picked to serve on were designer Kendra Scott, computer magnate Michael Dell of Austin, Dallas billionaire Robert Rowling, Houston retailer James “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, and former Dallas Federal Reserve president Richard Fisher. Others include Dallas construction company executive Arcilia Acosta, AllianceTexas developer H. Ross Perot Jr., former assistant U.S. education secretary Tom Luce of Dallas and Sanjiv Yajnik of Dallas, who is president of Capital One’s financial services division.
At least three of the 39 are Democrats — Fisher, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in a 1993 special election; former Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson, who just quit to become dean of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs; and Dennis Nixon, chief executive of the International Bank of Commerce in Laredo. Seven are women.