During a private call on Friday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott admitted that “every scientific and medical report shows” state reopenings “ipso facto” lead to an increase in novel coronavirus cases, even as he publicly announced plans that same week to end an executive stay-at-home order in the state.
“How do we know reopening businesses won’t result in faster spread of more cases of COVID-19?” Abbott asked during a Friday afternoon phone call with members of the state legislature and Congress. “Listen, the fact of the matter is pretty much every scientific and medical report shows that whenever you have a reopening—whether you want to call it a reopening of businesses or of just a reopening of society—in the aftermath of something like this, it actually will lead to an increase and spread. It’s almost ipso facto.”
“The more that you have people out there, the greater the possibility is for transmission,” Abbott said on the call, which a spokesperson confirmed was authentic on Tuesday. “The goal never has been to get transmission down to zero.”
The audio was recorded by somebody on the call, and a clip of it was sent to The Daily Beast on Tuesday. It was first reported by state political site Quorum Report, which noted that Abbott’s public statements so far have largely only mentioned that Texas may see an increase in the numbers due to increased testing capacity, rather than increased contact. Though Abbott has repeatedly said in public interviews that reopening “can” or “could” cause a spike in cases, the audio recording from last Friday’s call appeared to show a more direct and certain understanding of the risks.
John Wittman, a spokesperson for Abbott, insisted on Tuesday that the language in the audio message doesn’t deviate much from a local interview in which the governor admitted that “all scientists and doctors say that as we do begin to open up, there could be an increase in the number of coronavirus cases.” But during that interview, Abbott again attributed the increase to the improved capacity for testing in the state, rather than the increase in person-to-person contact.
Wittman also pointed to an interview in which Abbott said “when you begin to reopen, there can be spikes or increases in those who test positive for COVID-19” but that “this is nothing to be worried about, in part, because we will be doing far more testing in the future than we have in the past and that alone will identify more people testing positive.”
“The Governor has said this from the beginning, as we begin to open up, we will see flare ups, whether we open now or three months from now,” Wittman said. “The key is ensuring we are able to contain that spread, which is where contact tracing comes into play.”
Last week, during a press conference, Abbott announced the end to his executive order and plans to “strategically” open businesses in phases throughout the state, including movie theaters, restaurants, malls, and retail stores up to 25 percent occupancy.
During that press conference, the governor said that “it’s only logical to see there would be an increase in the number of people that test positive,” adding, “so just because there may be an increase in the number of people that test positive, that alone is not a decisive criteria.”
“This order allows these businesses to reopen but does not require them to reopen,” Abbott continued, noting that the state’s orders supersede all local authorities, who may not impose stricter guidelines.
On Friday’s private call with other lawmakers, Abbott emphasized that “the goal never has been to get transmission of COVID-19 down to zero, and never can be to keep transmission down to zero.”
“There’s always going to be, with a rapidly transmittable disease like this, there will always be a level of transmission,” said Abbott. “And even when you have an immunization come out, there will be a transmission rate for COVID-19.”
“The goal is to reopen using strategies that are proven strategies that can continue to contain the spread of COVID-19,” continued Abbott. “These are strategies that have been proven effective in the state of Texas for the past month and a half.”
“This may come up in answer to a future question, but the main thing that we look for—and this is the primary number that I’ve seen doctors and epidemiologists use—is that what we want to see is a reduction in the percentage of people who test positive,” said Abbott. “If we can continue to achieve that, that means that we have COVID-19 under the control that we need. And that’s what we’re looking to achieve.”
In a statement on Tuesday, Texas Democratic Party Executive Director Manny Garcia lambasted Abbott’s decision to reopen, knowing the risks.
“Republicans are not here to protect you or your family,” said Garcia. “Governor Abbott finally admitted that prematurely opening Texas is going to lead to more cases and more deaths. Republicans are putting our families’ lives at risk so their billionaire donors can get richer. What Texas Republicans say in public yet again doesn’t match what they say in private.
“He knew deaths would happen by reopening Texas and now he needs to own it,” said Garcia.
—Reporter Scott Bixby contributed to this story.