Less than six weeks ago, Austin and Travis County officials announced a shelter-in-place order that effectively shut the entire metropolis down. While seen as a necessary measure for slowing the spread of COVID-19, the policy has inevitably had a devastating economic impact. Storefronts have been shuttered en masse, several restaurants have already announced permanent closures, and thousands of local workers have lost their jobs. The social repercussions—along with the strains on mental health—could be even further reaching. Daily life as we know it has come to a grinding halt, leaving many residents grappling for some semblance of normalcy while wondering if, and when, this pandemic will subside. Gov. Greg Abbott’s answer: How about now?
An ardent supporter of small government, Abbott’s response to the ongoing coronavirus crisis has been minimal over the past month-plus. Initially, the Republican ceded control to local authorities, suggesting they were better equipped to provide aid to their communities—a passing-of-the-buck that closely mirrored the strategy of his ally, President Donald Trump, whose administration has largely left states to fend for themselves. In the weeks since, the governor (along with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick) has made it clear that reopening the state’s economy was a top priority moving forward, ignoring the advice of public health experts to exercise patience at a time when roughly one percent of the state’s 29 million residents have been tested for COVID-19. Now, after the state’s shelter-in-place expired last night at midnight, Abbott says Texas is officially open for business today—albeit in ill-conceived, profit-defying increments.
To be clear, Abbott’s not giving the go-ahead for all businesses to open up. While places like restaurants, retail stores, malls, libraries, and movie theaters will be allowed to operate at 25 percent capacity, spots such as bars, barbershops, and gyms will have to remain closed… for now. “Now it’s time to set a new course, a course that responsibly opens up business in Texas,” Abbott said during a Monday press conference, where he announced his new order. “Just as we united as one state to slow COVID-19, we must also come together to begin rebuilding the lives and the livelihoods of our fellow Texans.”
This is what Abbott referred to as “phase one” of his plan to reopen (and hopefully, revive) the Texas economy. If all goes according to plan—i.e., if there aren’t any immediate flare-ups of COVD-19—then his second phase, which includes increasing restaurant capacities to 50 percent and opening bars, gyms, and similar establishments, will kick in “on or no later than mid-May.”
There’s no way around it: This decision is fueled by ignorance, short-sightedness, and a brazen disregard for the well-being of Texans. By opening up the state less than two months after its vital shelter-in-place policy was implemented—and at a time when, save for places like Alabama and Georgia, the majority of the country is continuing to abide by the guidance of health officials—Abbott is pursuing momentary gains and cowering under the pressure of conservative protesters who’ve surrounded the Governor’s Mansion over the past two weeks and demanded he #openupTexas. Yes, he can point to the sputtering economy, but his administration’s response (which ranks in the bottom five of all states) has failed to put workers in a position to safely return to work. To that point, 92 total Texans have died from COVID-19 over the past 48 hours alone, by far the highest two-day total since the disease arrived here.
To be clear, this isn’t an admonishment of the many Texans demanding to go back to work. As I’ve written about extensively for Austin Monthly, this pandemic has placed an immense amount of pressure on our city’s services and left countless people jobless. People’s desire to put food on the table for their families and provide for their communities is admirable. But the fact is, we’re being offered a false choice: Nobody should be put in the position where they have to choose between going hungry and placing their life (and their loved ones’ lives) in grave danger. It’s our government’s job to step up and take care of its people in times of crisis.
That’s something Austin’s leadership has handled deftly.
In addition to adopting a series of crucial ordinances (including shelter-in-place and face mask requirements in public), the city, especially Mayor Adler, has remained in close communication with its citizens, celebrating the way the community has embraced key social distancing practices. Unfortunately, because Abbott’s order trumps all municipal policies, Adler’s administration will be forced to cede almost all control to the state moving forward. Despite these developments, the mayor is holding out hope that Austinites will continue to hunker down and exercise patience.
“No, I’m not ready to [go to restaurants starting May 1]. And, quite frankly, I want to see what the restaurants and shops do. I do know that I’m not going to go into any kind of restaurant or shop that doesn’t require people to wear face coverings. Because I, again, I think that’s reckless behavior,” he said in an interview with KVUE. “You know, as we move to a new place, we have to do a kind of tipping our toes in the waters. We need to do it gradually and we need to monitor and watch the behavior. I am real concerned because our modelers tell us really good news, that we’ve reduced the transfer of virus by 93 percent in our city. They tell us that if we drop down now, no longer doing 93 percent, they tell us if we drop below 80 percent, then the numbers are going to start going back up.”
So far, the majority of restaurants and similar establishments are following Adler’s lead, with few local eateries expected to open their dining rooms on Friday, citing safety concerns and the difficulties of turning a profit under such constraints. (For context, most restaurants struggle to consistently turn a profit in normal conditions; at 25 percent capacity, they’re bound to lose money.) Many prominent businesses, such as Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Franklin Barbecue, and P. Terry’s, have already posted public announcements stating their need to remain closed until better work conditions emerge. These decisions, while costly and difficult, are the smart choice. Still, the fact that small business owners—not the governor—are the people who are falling on the sword for the well-being of our communities speaks volumes.
While it’s too early to tell what exactly will come of Abbott’s decision, the data is clear: Texas hasn’t done enough to safely and confidently move forward. At least not yet. There’s no evidence that COVID-19 has reached its peak in the state, and with many experts warning that the virus could come back even stronger this fall, the last thing we need to do is stoke the flames of the worst pandemic in more than a century. So while some people will undoubtedly revel in the freedom afforded by today’s new policy, I’m holding out hope that business leaders and officials like Mayor Adler will continue to advise caution. How many Austinites follow their lead, however, remains to be seen.