AUSTIN (Nexstar) — In a press conference at the Texas Capitol on Monday afternoon, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Texas’ next steps for reopening business during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Abbott announced that as part of “Phase 1” of the plan to reopen Texas businesses, retail stores, restaurants and movie theaters will be able to reopen on Friday, May 1.
The Governor’s stay-home executive order was already set to expire on April 30, and Abbott announced he will allow it to.
“I believe we can re-engage our economy while using the same strategies we’ve been using,” Abbott explained.
Phase 1 of the plan would allow the aforementioned businesses to reopen (if they choose to), however, venues will be limited to 25% capacity. The Governor pointed to the capacity limits grocery stores have been utilizing during the closure, which he said still allowed prevention of further COVID-19 spread.
Abbott said that Phase 2 would begin on May 18, depending on whether spread is still able to be prevented after Phase 1 begins. Phase 2 would allow businesses to bump up capacity to 50%.
“Now, more than ever, Texans need to practice social distancing,” said the Governor.
Museums and libraries will also be allowed to reopen on Friday, however, any hands-on exhibits cannot.
Even with the green light, many businesses have announced they will not be opening on Friday.
Eric Silverstein, the owner of the Peached Tortilla restaurant in Austin, said it would not be a good business decision. He said the overhead costs outweigh the revenue brought in by the 25% of customers allowed to enter at a time. He also indicated that it takes time to re-hire employees and prepare for the operational changes he’s considering, including requiring masks and taking customer’s temperatures at the door.
“You are going to have to pay more people and your bills start to go up and you may lose money. So it’s important to figure out where people stand on the issue,” Silverstein said. “Ultimately, our decisions are going to be dictated based on if the public has confidence in dining out. That’s what this has come down to.”
Movie theaters like Alamo Drafthouse announced it will not open this weekend. But when it does, new procedures and equipment will be used and managers will take extra time to train employees on these new standards.
Retail giant Kendra Scott said it’s important that business owners practice patience and take this slow roll-out seriously.
“Governor Abbott’s phased approach is a thoughtful way to reopen state businesses, a crucial step to getting Texas back on its feet. The governor’s plan is intended to be a guideline for all businesses, not a mandate, and every business needs to make the individual decision based on the safety of their employees and customers. The most important factor to the Governor’s plan is that we take this slow and steady, all while maintaining the CDC’s health and safety practices for the benefit of our community. Right now each one of us can contribute to the goal of a safe reopening, by keeping the care and consideration for our fellow Texans as our top priority. We are all looking forward to the day we can be together again. To get there, we must be smart, and be patient.”Kendra Scott
Not included in the list of businesses that can reopen? Barber shops, salons, gyms and bars, which Abbott said are not deemed to be safe just yet.
Places of worship will be able to expand capacity on May 1.
Different standards of enforcement will apply to counties with five or fewer COVID-19 cases. These counties will be able to open businesses up to 50% capacity in Phase 1, if the county judge makes affirmations to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The plan — The Governor’s Report to Reopen Texas — can be viewed in full below.
Abbott put part of the plan into action last week, allowing retailers to reopen under a “retail to-go” model that permitted filling orders curbside for stores previously considered nonessential. The Governor has also loosened restrictions on non-emergency surgeries.
Abbott said the decision to pursue reopening came after discussions with his two advisory councils. One council is made up of doctors and conservative lawmakers. The second is comprised of business experts.
Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt said the Governor’s actions are informed by the experts on these advisory councils.
“Every action by the Governor will be informed. And based on hard data, and the expertise of our chief medical advisors. Everything we do will be medically sound,” Dr. Hellerstedt said at a news conference earlier this month.
Testing capacity and contact tracing
Some opponents to the Governor’s plans to reopen said more COVID-19 testing is needed before this can be done safely. Last week, the Governor said his team of medical advisors is working on a plan to increase testing that will coincide with the reopening.
“Getting up to 25,000 tests is something that should occur. Early on in the May timetable that we’re looking at,” Abbott said Monday.
But State Rep. Chris Turner said the Governor’s announcement Monday did not lay out a clear plan for how the state would be getting those tests.
“We all want businesses to safely reopen as soon as possible and that’s why I’m disappointed we did not hear more details on how Texas’ COVID-19 testing would increase,” Rep. Turner said.
The governor said the bigger testing capacity will be fueled by private companies doing more testing.
Additionally, Hellerstedt said once the supply chain issue is resolved across the country, Texas will be able to test more people.
“They’re specifically talking about testing collection kits and the viral transport that goes with it and sometimes, personal protective equipment that’s required to obtain the test, so when those scarcities ease, we’ll naturally be able to ramp up any amount of testing that we’re doing,” he explained at the news conference.
The Governor announced a new tracing program, which will aim to track down close contacts of those who test positive for COVID-19.
“Phase 1 of our tracing program is already completed. It mobilized a team of more than 1,100 state and local contact tracers. It created a contact tracing IT application, and set up a COVID-19 contact tracing call center,” Abbott said.
By the end of phase three, 4,000 contact tracers will be making calls across the state in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The process was called ‘Box it in’ at the news conference, demonstrating how the tracing begins with testing, then isolating those who test positive, finding everyone who has been in contact with that person, and then asking all of those contacts to self-quarantine.
In Austin, Mayor Steve Adler said, “By [the governor’s] numbers, we should have about 1,250 tests a day in Austin-Travis County. We’re about 800 tests a day, so we’re going to need the governor’s support and assistance for us to be able to get to that higher testing level.”
When asked about contact tracing, Adler said people with the Austin Public Health and the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School have contact tracers. However, he said, “I am concerned that as we do more testing and find more people that have the virus, and as the governor is now allowing for greater social interaction, we’re going to have new infections. I’m concerned about our ability to scale up to be able to continue to do all the contact tracing we need to do.”
At UT Austin, researchers have been analyzing different scenarios, based on different infection reduction rates and how well people who are vulnerable, such as people living in nursing homes, homeless people and people with underlying conditions, are protected.
Professor of Integrated Biology & Statistics and Data Sciences Lauren Ancel Meyers said, “Whether or not we end up with a second wave depends much more on whether people continue to take measures that prevent transmissions than it does on the timing of when we lift those social distancing measures.”
According to UT’s latest report, infections in the Austin-Round Rock area have been reduced by 94%.
“If we go back to life as normal and the risk of transmission increases, if we start doing that in May, then we’ll see a wave of transmission in the summer,” Meyers said.
According to the report, if social distancing guidelines lifted May 1 and people kept limiting contact and kept reducing the infection rate by 90%, we may not exceed the hospital capacity.
If the reduction in transmission dropped to 50%, however, and if vulnerable people weren’t protected properly, it would take about 29 days for 500 hospital beds to fill up. In that situation, there could be close to 70,000 cases.
Meyers said that shows the “importance of what we call cocooning the vulnerable population.”
With cocooning, even at 50% reduction in transmission, the model suggests, it would take about 50 days to exceed 500 hospital beds. The total number of cases could be significantly lower at close to 20,000 cases.
“We need to do our very best to ensure that there is a buffer, that people with high risk are not coming into contact with people who could be infected because of their daily activities,” Meyers explained.
Meyers said, “The future is pretty uncertain. More optimistically, if people are able to take precautions that really limit the likelihood of transmission, maybe they voluntarily opt not to go into public quite as much as they could… and very importantly, if we’re able to successfully cocoon our vulnerable population, really protect residents of nursing homes, we may not see a gigantic surge in deaths or hospitalizations. But it’s really uncertain.”
Businesses not yet included in the reopening plan
Two business groups — gyms and salons — have been completely closed since March due to the pandemic, and feel if retail stores can begin to open in some fashion, so can they.
Some local gym owners are anxious to get back to work, but say they are prepared to make adjustments in order to see clients and teach fitness classes again.
Some salon owners and stylists feel the same, and also say they are ready to make tweaks to their service in order to get back to work.
During the Monday conference, Abbott rounded out his announcement, saying “It’s time to start to reopen Texas… We are Texans. We got this.”