AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republican Gov. Greg Abbott outlined Monday a slow reopening of the Texas economy that is among the largest in the world, allowing restaurants, retailers, movie theaters and malls to start letting customers trickle into their establishments starting Friday.
The move comes as Texas and other states process a record-high surge in jobless claims, food banks are seeing spiking demands and testing for the coroanvirus remains limited. Conservatives and supporters of President Donald Trump have amplified calls to get the state and country back to work, while leaders of Texas’ biggest cities, who are mostly Democrats, have urged a slower course.
“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,” Abbott said.
Abbott’s plan allows establishments to let in customers up to 25% of capacity as long as they follow social distancing guidelines. Those in counties that have reported fewer than five cases of the coronavirus will be able to serve customers at a 50% threshold unless officials see a spike in new cases.
Abbott also said he will let his monthlong stay-at-home order expire on April 30. Bars, barbershops, hair salons and gyms remain closed, as do universities and schools for more than 5 million children.
Abbott has been under some pressure for a quicker reopening but chose a cautious route intended to avoid a spike in new cases. In Houston, leaders didn’t cheer on the governor’s timetable but said they hoped for the best. “I would have liked to have a few more days to really get our systems in place,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “We’re going to do our very best with the time frame we’ve been given.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, “The virus is still here.”
Abbott said his order on business capacity can be enforced through fines or threats of 180 days in jail for business owners for violations. Or a regulated business could lose their license to operate
Abbott’s new order also means cities like Houston and Austin, which have required people wear to masks when in public, cannot punish any violators with penalties. However, Abbott urged people to continue wearing masks and said anyone still nervous about going out in public should stay home.
“If you want to continue to stay at home, stay at home,” Abbott said.
Glenda Steenwyk and her husband did not want to stay home. In the Fort Worth suburb of Colleyville, Mayor Richard Newton loosened restrictions on April 20 to allow outdoor dining at restaurants and one-on-one services at massage establishments, salons and cosmetology services.
The Steenwyks have already dined out twice since Newton’s edict. “We just wanted to have a different experience. We just wanted to be out from our house, out with other people,” she said.
“All the tables are spread apart,” she said. There was a six-foot separation when they took our order, and the server wore a mask and gloves when they served our food.”
A key part of Abbott’s plan is a promise of boosting testing and tracking outbreaks, including building a team of 4,000 contact tracers by May 11. The new rules could be expanded to more businesses if the next two weeks do not show sharp increases in the number of people hospitalized or dying from COVID-19.
In a series of radio and television interviews last week, Abbott assured that life would start getting back to normal in May, promising both a “strategic” approach along with hints of a “massive” reopening. But the plan outlined Monday is a more cautious approach that some other states have taken, with a promise of greater expansion if things go well.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s aggressive moves last week to reopen that state left many business owners confused and drew rare rebukes from conservatives, including Trump, that it was too much, too fast.
“We’re not just going to open up and hope for the best,” Abbott said. “Opening Texas must occur in phases.”
Americans remain overwhelmingly in favor of stay-at-home orders and other efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, according to a survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. A majority of Americans also say it won’t be safe to lift social distancing guidelines anytime soon.
According to state health officials, Texas had more than 25,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Monday, with 663 deaths and more than 11,100 deemed recovered. The number of infections is likely higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and be life-threatening.
Associated Press reporters Nomaan Merchant and Juan A. Lozano in Houston and Terry Wallace in Dallas contributed to this story.
Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak