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TX Gov. Abbott unveils guidelines to reopen state – first state to do so

Gov. Greg Abbott at a bill-signing ceremony in June. (Lola Gomez/American-Statesman/TNS)

Gov. Greg Abbott unveiled guidelines Friday that permit businesses to begin reopening their doors in the face of the novel coronavirus’ spread and announced Texas schools will remain closed for the rest of the academic year.

He issued three executive orders and rolled back some restrictions, including permitting additional surgeries, reopening state parks and allowing retail businesses to operate “to-go.”

“We’re now beginning to see glimmers that the worst of COVID-19 may soon be behind us,” Abbott said Friday from the Texas Capitol, flanked by state leaders. “We have demonstrated that we can corral the coronavirus.”

In addition, Abbott established the “Strike Force to Open Texas” that will develop guidelines on when and how more businesses may reopen. It will be led by James Huffines, a banker who has served on The University of Texas System Board of Regents, and lobbyist Mike Toomey will serve as its chief operating officer.

The task force will be a collaboration between state officials and advised by both public health experts and business leaders, including members from the Dallas-Fort Worth area like Ross Perot, Jr. and Bobby Cox.

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Abbott said revised guidance will be issued April 27 based on the strike force’s recommendations and how well-contained the spread of COVID-19 is in Texas. He floated the possibility of loosening his order requiring Texans to stay at home through April if the number of positive cases declines.

“In these next ten days, we will prepare a phased-in strategy to open Texas in a safe way,” Abbott said. It, “will require comprehensive testing and assurances of hospital readiness for COVID-19 patients.”

School closures

Abbott said Friday that school closures will apply to all public, private and higher education institutions. In a statement shortly after Abbott’s announcement, the Texas Education Agency said while a difficult decision, it’s “the only one that makes sense for Texas at this time.”

Tarrant County school districts had first announced temporary closures in mid-March, and Abbott closed all schools statewide shortly after until May 4. School districts have sent lesson plans home, but parents have described feeling anxious they aren’t doing enough and have struggled to balance their own jobs while ensuring their kids’ education isn’t disrupted.

Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Kent Scribner applauded Abbott’s extension of school closures in a statement Friday, and said he has been encouraged with how teachers, students and parents have “rallied to engage in the learning process” from home.

“We will continue that learning process for the remainder of the school year,” Scribner said. “We look forward to working closely with Commissioner Mike Morath and the Texas Education Agency in determining how we can move forward with continued learning opportunities, such as summer school, and how we can apply lessons we have learned in recent weeks to our anticipated reopening of schools in the fall.”

The Texas State Teachers Association also supported the decision, and in a news release Friday called on the state to continue to fully fund schools, require that hourly employees are still paid and ensure equity in learning for students who may be English language learners, have special education needs and more.

Businesses reopening, loosening restrictions

The virus has rocked the economy, and stay-at-home orders have forced some businesses to close and led to record job losses and claims for unemployment insurance.

Beginning Friday, April 24, retail businesses that are not deemed “essential” by the statemay allow for pickup or home delivery, similar to how restaurants have been operating. Abbott stressed that customers may not be allowed to enter retail stores, and that “employees should not be coerced into returning to work.”

Businesses must abide by guidance issued by the Texas Department of State Health Services, which requires payments be done over the phone or online, that employees be screened and have their temperature taken before entering the premises, that they wear face masks and more.

Abbott closed state parks last week, but said Friday that they would be reopened beginning Monday. Visitors will be required to wear face coverings or masks, stay 6-feet apart from others and cannot gather in groups larger than five people.

Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce President Brandom Gengelbach, and the leaders from the Metro 8 Chambers of Commerce, which also include Arlington, Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio, applauded Abbott’s incremental approach.

“While COVID-19 will have long-term impacts on our state, smart policy decisions made now can greatly accelerate our economic recovery,” the statement read.

Abbott acknowledged during Friday’s press conference that reopening the economy in the face of a disease that currently has no vaccine, may result in a resurgence of cases.

“What we have shown, and what we believe we will be able to continue to show, is that we are able to increase economic activity, increase the ability of people to go about with a more normalization of their lives, while at the same time containing the spread, and when it does arise provide targeted solutions,” Abbott said, pointing to the possibility of localized restrictions in areas with surges in cases.

Last month, Abbott also suspended elective surgeries and procedures that weren’t necessary to correct a serious medical condition or to preserve the life of a patient. He loosened those restrictions Friday, issuing an executive order that permits procedures that would not deplete hospital capacity or supplies of personal protective equipment, such as face masks or gloves.

The order allows for procedures in healthcare facilities that certify in writing to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission that they will reserve at least 25% of their hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients, and that they will not request any personal protective equipment from public sources. The order goes into effect at 11:59 p.m. on April 21 and lasts through May 8.

Abbott’s suspension of elective surgeries also resulted in a ban on most abortions in Texas. The ban has been the focus of a back-and-forth legal battle between the state and abortion providers, and Abbott said Friday abortion procedures are “not part of this order” and that “ultimately, obviously that will be a decision for courts to make.”

Abbott had hinted at an announcement related to reopening businesses since last week, and in a Monday press conference stressed reopening businesses would be a slow and gradual process.

His announcement follows President Donald Trump’s release of a three-phased approach Thursday that outlines criteria states should meet before easing social distancing guidelines, including a decrease in cases in a 14-day period and robust testing.

Abbott has faced mounting pressure from both directions, with conservative lawmakers calling on him to loosen his statewide restrictions to get Texans back to work, while Democratic lawmakers have urged Abbott to heed the advice of public health experts and keep social distancing mandates in place to prevent a surge in cases.

Testing in Texas

Democrats were critical of Abbott’s new measures Friday, and in a press conference following Abbott’s announcement, Rep. Celia Israel, a Democrat from Austin, noted that local officials who are the “eyes and ears on the ground” were not included on Abbott’s strike force. U.S Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from San Antonio, also pointed to the fact that Texas ranks near the bottom nationwide in terms of per capita testing.

“Texas still has done a terrible job under his leadership of testing people. So we still don’t have a sense for how big the problem is with the pandemic in Texas,” Castro said.

Abbott said Friday that “a core component” of reopening Texas’ economy will be increased testing across the state. He declined to specify how much, but said “a massive amount” of increased testing will reach Texas by late April or early May. DSHS Commissioner John Hellerstedt said the state is starting to see “a more reliable supply” of swab collection kits needed for testing.

“We have heard for weeks that there are ‘encouraging signs’ more testing is coming, but it never seems to happen, We need to dramatically increase testing, right now,” Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat from Grand Prairie and chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement after Abbott’s announcement.

Abbott has previously stressed that while Texas hasn’t hit its peak number of cases, a slowdown in the the number of days it takes for confirmed coronavirus cases to double shows that social distancing mandates are working to slow the virus’ spread.

However, the number of confirmed cases is still on the rise. As of Friday afternoon, DSHS was reporting more than 158,000 Texans had been tested, with 17,371 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Of those, 1,522 Texans were hospitalized and there had been 428 COVID-19 related deaths. An estimated 3,677 Texans had recovered — meaning they had gone at least two weeks of being COVID-19 free.

The number of cases across Texas is likely higher than reported as testing has been limited. Dallas-Fort Worth residents previously reported being unable to get tested for COVID-19 even when showing symptoms, and local officials have pointed to the need for increased testing.

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© 2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram