Gov. Abbott again restricts press access major COVID-19 announcement

As Gov. Greg Abbott prepared to make one of his most consequential announcements of the pandemic on Friday — when and how to reopen the state as cases of COVID-19 continue to surge — he told news outlets they wouldn’t be allowed in to ask questions.

The governor, who has come under intense pressure from both Democrats and fellow Republicans on the contours of the plan, selected three outlets to attend his Friday briefing: the Texas Tribune, Spectrum News and the Austin Business Journal. The announcement was made in the public reception room of the governor’s mansion, which Abbott spokesman John Wittman said is small and can’t fit more reporters at safe distances apart.

The governor opted not to hold the briefing at noon today in a larger auditorium where he has held several past briefings, Wittman said.

LIVE: Press Conference on COVID-19

— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) April 17, 2020

“The governor felt it was a more appropriate place to make the announcement,” Wittman said. He added, “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that the Houston Chronicle is writing this story and I think you should be ashamed.”

When the governor restricts access for the press, he designates those who attend as “pool” reporters who ask questions and then provide a detailed write-up to other Texas media. But it’s another level of distance from the governor for a press corps that is often limited to one question apiece even when Abbott allows them in the room.

The governor has consistently barred a majority of outlets from attending for major announcements: when he closed schools, restaurants and bars on March 19; when he issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 31; and now as he details steps to restart the state’s flagging economy.

More reporters have been allowed in for other briefings, on updates about the outbreak and new private partnerships to get more tests and personal protective gear to the state.

In major cities including San Antonio and Houston, press briefings have regularly been open to reporters. President Donald Trump has also opened his daily briefings, even as he criticizes much of the coverage of his response to the crisis.

The governor’s decision to restrict access comes as the rate of positive COVID-19 tests has grown since March. About 10.3 percent of Texans tested were coming up positive for the new coronavirus as of Friday, according to state data, and Democrats have called for increased access to testing and medical supplies, as well as a focus on the virus’s disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic people in the state.

“We have not even been able to scratch the surface of testing,” Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, said Thursday in a call with reporters. “We’re all ready to get out of our houses and go back to work. but we don’t even know what’s out there.”

Some conservatives, meanwhile, have lambasted Abbott for not allowing businesses to reopen sooner.

Abbott was especially vague about Friday’s announcement. He teased at it last Friday, saying he would be issuing a series of executive orders. Earlier this week he said he would unveil a team of experts to consult with on how best to begin reopening the economy.

“This is not going to be a rush-to-the-gates, everybody-will-be open-all-at-once (situation),” he said. “We have to reopen in a way in which we are able to stimulate the economy while ensuring we can contain the spread of COVID-19.”

At the briefing last Friday, which was open to the media, Abbott announced that a number of companies were pitching in to respond to the crisis, including Walgreens, which he said would be opening drive-thru testing sites, some with capacity to administer up to 3,000 tests per day. Walgreens has since opened two sites, both in Houston, each with capacity for up to 200 tests per day.

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