When Governor Greg Abbott announced on Monday that Texas would begin on Friday its gradual plan to lift lockdown orders amid the coronavirus crisis, he said his approach would be guided by data. Seven and a half hours before the state’s stay-at-home order would expire, two key new data points emerged. The Texas Department of State Health Services reported fifty new deaths from COVID-19 in the state, the largest single day increase during the pandemic. For only the second time since tracking began, it also reported more than one thousand new confirmed cases.
Under Abbott’s plan, retail stores, restaurants, malls, and movie theaters are allowed to reopen starting Friday, at 25 percent capacity. The plan to reopen runs contrary to the advice of Abbott’s own medical advisors, and comes amid polling that suggests that 78 percent of Texans are still concerned about being around others during the pandemic.
That a larger number of confirmed deaths from the coronavirus was reported hours before business were set to reopen doesn’t necessarily mean that the reopening is happening amid a surge in the disease’s spread. The spike may be an outlier, rather than an indication of a new trend: It’s still a relatively small uptick.
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But there’s also no data that tells us that right now is the time to begin lifting the lockdown. The uptick is a reminder that, as the state is set to open up, nothing about our ability to contain or control the spread of COVID-19 in Texas has changed since lockdown orders began in cities across the state in mid-March. There’s still no treatment that’s proven effective. There’s still no vaccine. And Texas still conducts far fewer than the more than 40,000 daily tests experts suggest would, with a robust contact tracing effort, be adequate to contain the spread of the virus.
What’s more, the trend in confirmed cases since the statewide lockdown went into effect shows it was working: it was reducing the speed at which the coronavirus was spreading. Research has found that the coronavirus has a reproductive number of 2.28, meaning that each person diagnosed infects an average of 2.28 people. That’s what leads to the sort of exponential growth that’s overwhelmed hospital systems in other parts of the world—2 people become 4, which become 8, which become 16, and so on. The statewide stay-at-home order that Abbott is lifting went into effect March 31, with most of Texas’s largest cities enacting similar policies earlier. Subsequent testing in Texas, while still spotty, suggests a rate of infection closer to 1:1.
Over the last three weeks, around 840 new cases have been reported each day, without much in the way of dips or spikes. This suggests that the current spread of the disease has been managed fairly effectively by the strong lockdown. Further, the relatively low rate of infection across the state—8.5 percent of tests conducted in Texas have come back positive, compared to 34 percent in New York and 48 percent in New Jersey—suggests the efforts in place through most of March and April have been broadly successful statewide at preventing a widespread outbreak.
A study of the measures taken in Austin and Travis County, conducted by the University of Texas’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, found that the Austin-Round Rock metro area successfully reduced transmission of the disease by 94 percent during its lockdown, which came one week earlier than Abbott’s statewide restrictions. The study warns that the slow spread we’ve seen so far won’t continue as restrictions relax. In one model in which social distancing measures are relaxed to the point that we curtail only 40 percent of transmissions, instead of the current 94 percent, the hospitalization rate in Austin would exceed the city’s capacity as early as June, the death toll would increase as much as tenfold, and hospital capacity wouldn’t be able to keep up with cases until sometime in the fall.
If the guidelines for business that reopen are followed perfectly, it’s possible that the spread would be slower than the model suggests. But given that we have only managed to keep the rate of transmission relatively flat with the help of a strong statewide lockdown, the transmission rate is likely to rise as that lockdown is lifted. We don’t know if the guidelines will be effective, and we also don’t know if businesses will observe them, nor if the state will rigorously enforce them. In fact, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough suggested earlier this week that the vagueness of Abbott’s order meant that it would not be enforced in the suburbs north of Houston.
The consequences of reopening too early could be high. Austin City Councilmember Greg Casar said that, based on the UT projections, Austin is already planning for the possibility of a second lockdown. “The assumption is that because of the governor’s order, we will start to see more and more interactions between people, and a spike in infections,” he said. “I hope the governor supports us shutting down the city again at that point, and if he doesn’t, we’ll have to do it again anyway, because thousands of lives depend on it.”
Nothing about Austin’s circumstances suggests that it would be different from most of the other large urban areas in Texas, where more than two-thirds of the state’s residents live. Staying at home for weeks on end is miserable for many. For some, it’s financially crippling. But having to do it a second time, as thousands of Texans die around us, would be worse.