Abbott announces plan to reopen businesses
By Mike Eddleman
Texas Governor Greg Abbott gave the green light to many businesses closed for weeks due to a variety of orders across the state that have limited which businesses could remain open during the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The announcement Monday – which was identified as Phase One of the plan – will allow all retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls to reopen Friday, May 1 with certain restrictions.
The primary restriction is they limit capacity to 25 percent of the total listed occupancy, as well as follow a prescribed list of health protocols for businesses, employees and customers spelled out in “The Governor’s Report to Open Texas.”
Abbott also emphasized that the new directives would apply across the state.
“This order that opens up businesses in Texas supersedes all local orders,” he said.
The report addresses many different types of businesses, with many of the same general guidelines for each, but, for example, restrictions on restaurants planning to reopen their dining rooms include having no tables with more than six people, no condiments or cutlery left on the table and use of disposable menus.
If Phase One is successful in containing the spread of the virus then occupancy levels could move to 50 percent. Abbott emphasized that the guidelines and planning was based on consultation with medical professionals.
“This is consistent with CDC guidelines, and based on advice from infectious disease specialists we will open Texas businesses in phases,” he said. “If we can contain the spread of COVID-19 during that time period, we can move to Phase Two as early as May 18. Phase Two will allow us to open more businesses and allow those open in Phase One to expand their operations. We need to see two weeks of data to confirm no flare up of COVID-19.”
In addition to retail establishments, the new guidelines allow all museums and libraries to open under the same 25 percent capacity guidelines and churches can expand with social distancing practices in place.
Sports with no more than four participants at a time are allowed with safe distancing, with Abbott citing golf and tennis as examples.
Healthcare professionals in previously closed local offices are allowed to return to work with few restrictions, though hospitals remain required to reserve 50 percent of capacity for COVID-19 patients.
“Doctors, nurses and dentists need to get back to work, but even more importantly, patients need to get in to see those doctors, nurses and dentists,” Abbott said.
A handful of businesses Abbott said he could not allow to reopen at this time are barber shops, hair salons, bars and gyms.
“The goal is just to find safe ways in which people can work in close contact with customers while preventing the spread of COVID-19. We think we have some potential solutions, let us continue to work on it,” he said. “We are working with our medical team, as well as with members of those industry sectors to open these businesses as soon as possible. My hope is that they will open by or no later than mid-May.”
Key factors cited by Abbott in the decision to move now on reopening businesses across the state included increased hospital capacity, increased stock of available personal protective equipment (PPE) and the deployment of 3,000 National Guard troops to operate mobile testing sites and distribute PPE.
He also noted the 1.9 million unemployment claims filed in the state as an important factor, but he said the focus would be on standards based on data and doctors.
“We will open in a way that uses safe standards. Safe standards for the business, for their employees as well as for their customers,” Abbott said, cautioning that a second wave of the virus has already shown to be problematic in some places.
“There’s a reason all businesses in Texas can’t open all at once,” Abbott said. “We’ve already seen precautionary tales of what can happen when things reopen. There have been reports that China is now having new outbreaks. Singapore is having a second wave that’s bigger than its first wave. There’s Coronavirus expansion in places like Hong Kong and Japan. The deal is, its a fact that it is hard to get rid of this virus because it’s so contagious.”
Two important pieces to the new plan rolled out Monday are continued testing and contact tracing for new cases of the virus.
“A core part of opening up safely is having an effective testing and tracing process,” Abbott said. “A process that can quickly identify any flare ups in COVID-19. We have already developed a robust testing and tracing program to help identify others that may have been infected.”
The first phase of the contact tracing plan is completed, with the State having mobilized 1,157 contact tracers, and developing an application and establishing a statewide call center.
“(The contact tracers) will deploy the contract tracing application statewide and deploy the COVID-19 contact tracing call center,” Abbott said. “Phase Three of the program will use the month of May to build a team of 4,000 contact tracers.”
The tracers will have four critical tasks in Abbott’s plan to control the spread of COVID-19.
“They test for those who may be affected,” he said. “They then help isolate those who test positive. Then they try and locate everyone who has been in contact with the infected person. Then they work with them to self-isolate for 14 days. What that process does is it will box-in the expansion of COVID-19.”
Abbott predicted the state will exceed its goal of 25,000 tests per day.
The report said more than 300 testing sites across the state are now listed on the state website, and that there will be 25 fully operational mobile testing teams before the end of April.
The State’s testing policy is aligned with CDC guidance and directed by Department of State Health Services. Testing is currently focused specifically on hospitalized patients, those in long-term care facilities, healthcare workers and first- responders, and Texans over the age of 65.
As resources allow, individuals with mild symptoms could also be tested, but the report said “at this time, it is imperative to focus testing on those who need it most — both symptomatic people and Texans at high risk, like nursing home residents and healthcare workers.”
Abbott urged Texans to continue safe distancing practices and pledged to rely on “doctors and data” for strategies, while pledging to protect the most vulnerable residents, but said, “It is entrepreneurs that drive the Texas economy. They need to be unleashed to restore livelihoods while all of us remain focused on protecting the lives of our fellow Texans.”