By Jeremy Blackman, Austin Bureau
Gov. Greg Abbott told Texans on Monday that many of them will be allowed out of their homes this week to shop, dine and take part in other aspects of daily life as the state begins to reopen amid the global pandemic.
With testing for COVID-19 on the rise and the percent of new cases falling, the governor said the state has effectively stunted the spread of the virus, and cities and counties should begin allowing residents to safely return to work. Within days, he said, most businesses will be able to reopen at limited capacity, and pockets of the state where cases are especially low can open even more, with nonbinding guidelines in place to continue social distancing.
“We’re not just going to open up and hope for the best,” Abbott said.
Retail businesses, restaurants, movie theaters and malls across the state will be allowed to reopen May 1 at 25 percent capacity, as will museums and libraries. Bars, barber shops, gyms and hair salons will remain closed, likely until mid-May, Abbott said. Masks and other strategies to contain the virus will be encouraged but not mandated.
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The announcement, as a 30-day stay-at-home order is set to expire Friday, immediately put the state’s top official at odds with authorities in some of its hardest hit cities, which have issued their own emergency restrictions. Abbott said his edict supersedes those, though no one will be forced to go outside.
“If you want to stay at home, stay at home,” he said, adding, “You have every right to control your own path.”
The governor said his phased reentry plan, which allows for larger re-openings as the outbreak continues to slow, was guided by medical professionals and vetted by the White House. Businesses that violate the new capacity guidelines could be fined or lose their license, Abbott said.
Democrats and some public health officials have worried that re-opening too quickly could lead to new surges of the outbreak, which has infected more than 25,000 Texans and killed 663, according to state data. The number of cases in the state continues to grow, but new daily cases — a measure of how quickly the outbreak is spreading — have remained mostly stagnant over the past week, even as testing capacity has expanded.
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Public health experts have said robust testing and contract tracing — tracking down contacts of those who have been infected — will be pivotal to preventing new outbreaks as states begin to roll back restrictions. Abbott said the state has deployed more than 1,100 contact tracers already, and plans to bring on nearly 3,000 more by May 11.
The governor’s plan sets a goal of 30,000 tests per day. The state is currently administering about 14,000 daily tests, on average. The governor is still not recommending people without symptoms get tested.
Some public health studies have called for higher numbers of daily testing, and Democrats were quick to call the governor’s testing and tracing plan insufficient.
“We all want the state to get back on track, we all want the economy to get back on track, but it has to be done safely,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso. “Without robust testing, we remain in the dark.”
In Harris County, which has seen the biggest outbreak, the number of new daily cases varied, though the percent of people testing positive has declined recently. The county is now up to more than 5,700 cases.
Some public health officials said they liked the governor’s phased approach, saying it allows for time to see if restrictions need to be added back if new outbreaks occur.
Dr. Paul Klotman, president of Baylor College of Medicine, said the public should be prepared to adjust, for there to be “two steps forward and one step backward as outbreaks occur.”
Several rural counties still have tested few if any people, according to the most recent preliminary testing data. Abbott said Monday that counties with five or fewer cases of the virus will be able to open at 50 percent capacity as of May 1, as long as they show they are ready if outbreaks occur and are helping people access testing.
For more detail on Abbott’s plan, you can read the full report here: “Texans Helping Texans: The Governor’s Report to Open Texas.”
Todd Ackerman contributed reporting.