Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday is expected to give guidance on how and when Texas should reopen businesses that have been closed or restricted to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Abbott’s announcement, which is expected to involve reopening much of the state sooner rather than later, will likely put him at loggerheads with local officials, most notably Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.
Jenkins wants areas like Dallas and Harris counties to be classified as places with significant spread of the novel coronavirus. That would necessitate that businesses in those areas come back on line considerably later than the rest of the state.
If the governor’s plan is as I expect, Texas businesses could start coming back on line days after his order. It’s unclear what he has planned for Dallas County, but it’s a safe bet Jenkins won’t like it.
Last week Abbott told WBAP in Dallas-Fort Worth that he and his advisers have been talking to businesses in detail about safe ways to reopen.
“They’re saying they need about a week, to … go back in and clean up their facilities, and whether it be a movie theater … or a restaurant to get everything organized to make sure they have all the supplies they need,” he said.
“But this is going to be happening in the first couple of days in May, where you’re going to be able to go back and go dining under safe standards, you’re going to be able to get a haircut, you’re going to be able to go to a hair salon, you’re going to be able to start doing some things that people have been been long wanting to do.”
The governor has formed a 39-member panel to help guide his decisions, though he’s being criticized by some analysts because more than half of the panelists are Abbott campaign donors.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins speaks during a press conference for a COVID-19 update at the Dallas County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in Dallas, on April 14, 2020. Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services also spoke. Ben Torres/Special Contributor(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)
What Abbott says about big counties like Dallas and Harris is critical to how much resistance he gets from local and even business leaders.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the politics surrounding the fight against COVID-19 have resulted in disparate views on when an area is safe for businesses to reopen and people to start gathering again.
As more people lose jobs and businesses start to collapse, the debate has boiled down to getting to an ideal level of virus mitigation versus stopping the economic slide.
Statements by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick about there being “more important things than living” in calling for businesses to restart and rallies led by fringe figures have obscured a tortuous debate by political leaders, business owners and average Americans.
When is it truly safe to go back?
According to Fortune magazine, the “real unemployment rate” is above 20% and 26.5 million U.S. jobs have been lost. Texas has seen 1.5 million claims for unemployment pay since March 15. The biggest job losses occurred in the restaurant industry, as well as in health care and retail sectors.
Though not at the rate of states like New York, the coronavirus has wreaked havoc on Texas. There have been over 24,631 positive cases in Texas as of Sunday afternoon, with 648 deaths.
As of Sunday, Dallas County had more than 3,000 positive cases and 82 deaths.
Rural counties with meat processing plants seem to be coronavirus hotspots.
At the end of last week, Moore County had 8.53 cases per 1,000 residents. Potter had 1.83 per 1,000; and Randall had 1.03. For comparison, Harris County, the state’s most populous, had 1.16 cases per 1,000 people and Dallas County had 1.07.
While Abbott’s goal has been to keep Texans safe, he’s under pressure to begin the process of getting Texans back to work and restoring the state’s usually roaring economy.
Places like Pecos County in West Texas, where at the beginning of the month there was only one confirmed coronavirus case, will likely be allowed to open with no restrictions.
Controversy could unfold when Abbott calls for businesses in Dallas County to reopen. If he classifies the Dallas area in the same way as most Texas counties, including nearby Ellis County, that would go against Jenkins’ science-based approach.
Many scientists believe areas should consider reopening after two consecutive weeks of reduced spread of the virus. Last week was the first time Dallas County realized the number of new transmissions reduced. Another week of positive case reductions would put an initial phase of reopening in May.
Dallas County has a stay-at-home-order in place until May 15, but Abbott could override it.
How should you reopen?
Jenkins and others would like to have a process in three phases. Some businesses with less risk of spreading the virus would open first. They would be heavily monitored and testing for the virus would be ramped to higher levels than currently exist. Then close-contact businesses like tattoo shops and hair salons would go next. The last cluster would be movie theaters and other places that attract masses of people in confined spaces.
It’s unclear when it would be safe to attend a Texas Rangers game at the team’s new stadium or to jam into a music concert.
Abbott has the power to dictate his plan, and Jenkins is preparing to make a case against whatever aspect of the policy with which he disagrees, while backing up his objections with science.
Last week there was a preview of a Jenkins-Abbott clash, when the county judge disagreed with the governor’s order that elective surgeries and other procedures could begin as early as April 22.
“I have, again, looked to the experts, the science, and the data,” Jenkins wrote in a statement that called for an incremental approach.
“Such a carefully planned and phased approach will best ensure patient, provider and public safety,” he said.
Some elected leaders are hoping for the best.
State Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, says she’s working directly with the Strike Force to Open Texas to identify businesses owned by women, veterans and people of color.
“A solutions-focused approach to this challenge is necessary as we move forward with the governor’s first phase of safely and strategically reigniting our economy,” Neave said.
But expect more disagreements between Abbott and Jenkins, with area businesses caught in the middle.
It’s similar to what’s happening in states like Georgia, where last week Gov. Brian Kemp ordered the reopening or parts of the Peach State economy, including close-contact businesses like nail salons, barbershops and massage parlors.
Kemp’s decision was counter to federal guidelines backed by President Donald Trump.
Throughout the pandemic there’s been a lack of unity between federal, state and local officials.
The lack of a vaccine, which could take 18 months or more to develop, makes the thought of venturing out somewhat scary.
The ultimate choice to reopen or patronize a business will be made by Texas residents or executives. It’s the people who will decide whether to go back to work, church, the movies or the bar.