Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's plan to reopen the state will start with restaurants, movie theaters, malls and retail stores. At a press conference Monday afternoon, Abbott unveiled a three-phase project to get Texas back to business.
Phase 1 begins Friday.
Thanks to Texas' continued available hospital capacity and its relatively low number of novel coronavirus infections and deaths, Abbott said the state is in good position to move away from his strict shelter-at-home order, which ends April 30.
Abbott said that lives have been saved by the measures the state has taken so far, but saving those lives has come at a cost.
"The lives saved are priceless, but the price has been steep," Abbott said. "Just as we united as one state to slow COVID-19, we must also come together to rebuild the lives and the livelihoods" of those affected by COVID-19.
After a little more than two weeks of the new guidelines, the state will evaluate if it should move to phase 2, which will open even more business, in addition to allowing businesses already open to increase their capacities. During phase 1, retailers, restaurants, theaters and malls will be limited to 25% capacity. The plan is for them to bump up to 50% capacity during phase 2.
"We will open in a way that uses safe standards ... based upon data and upon doctors," Abbott said.
The state will use contact tracing and expanded testing to monitor for new outbreaks, the governor said. More than 1,100 contact tracers will be deployed by the state during phase 1.
Abbott doesn't want the state to come out from hibernation only to have to go back under.
"It's hard to get rid of this virus because it is so contagious. ... We are not just going to open up and hope for the best," the governor said.
Abbott's directive takes priority over all local orders issued to combat COVID-19, the governor said.
Museums, libraries and businesses operated by a sole proprietor can also open during phase 1, as can outdoor sports facilities, as long as no more than four people play together at a time. Salons, barber shops and bars cannot.
According to Abbott, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus coordinator, approves of Texas' phasing in of business activity.
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"She said the Texas plan was great," Abbott said.
Cherise Rohr-Allegrini, a San Antonio-based epidemiologist, said she was encouraged by the 25% occupancy limit built into Abbott's executive order. But it may be difficult for businesses to turn a profit with those kinds of occupancy limits, so Rohr-Allegrini said local authorities will need to enforce the rule.
Although she said it was sound in principle, Rohr-Allegrini said she was concerned that the move may be coming too soon, before the state has a robust enough testing and contact-tracing capacity to contain the virus. She noted that in every recent pandemic, the second wave of infections has been more severe than the first, and the people hit hardest are generally those who are most vulnerable — low-income people, elderly people and those whose circumstances make it difficult for them to isolate.
Rohr-Allegrini said Texas is in a better position now than it was weeks ago, when Abbott's order went into effect. Contact tracing is generally a key part of the public health response to any pandemic, she said, but state leaders weren't discussing it at the beginning of the outbreak. Now, she said, it's become a major part of the state's response.