Governor Greg Abbott is moving ahead in reopening the Texas economy. All businesses in Texas can now operate at 50% of their maximum occupancy. The announcement was made yesterday, the same day that the seven-day average for new daily cases hit 1,466, up from 1,280 in mid-May.
The governor is forging on with reopening plans because of the success that Texas has seen in doing so in a safe manner. Most Texans continue to use common sense and practice personal responsibility measures.
“The people of Texas continue to prove that we can safely and responsibly open our state for business while containing COVID-19 and keeping our state safe,” the Republican governor said, while encouraging the continued use of face masks and other safety practices in public.
So, why the spike in coronavirus cases? Governor Abbott points to specific hot spots like prisons, jails, nursing homes, and meatpacking plants as the cause for nearly half of all new cases. Containment in these hot spots is key going forward.
Abbott said nearly half of all new cases are isolated at jails and prisons, meatpacking plants and nursing homes, environments where he says outbreaks can be contained as the reopening progresses. The state has moved to increase testing at many of those locations, though testing as a whole remains stagnant, well below the governor’s goal of 30,000 tests per day. The state has averaged about 23,000 tests per day for the past three weeks.
Hot spots are being handled with surge response teams that include public health officials and members of the National Guard. Teams from the Division of Emergency Management have been active in more than 100 counties.
It’s a fine line the governor is walking here. Hospitals are not overwhelmed but hospitalizations are up for the past week. Statewide, hospital capacity is well below the point of being at peak level. The number of COVID-19 deaths per day is down – 23 deaths per day over the past week. That number was 40 in mid-May. Governor Abbott said he is closely watching hospitalizations and deaths as he proceeds with reopening the state.
The state’s major cities have all extended stay-at-home orders and mandated facial masks but those orders are unenforceable, easily overruled by the governor’s executive orders. Yet, generally speaking, Texans are following the recommendations of public health officials – wearing masks, practicing social distancing in public, at-risk people staying at home whenever possible, and reminding everyone to practice personal hygiene like frequent handwashing.
Texas is likely plateauing at this point – no dramatic drops or surges in cases. With the large numbers of people attending rallies and protests in recent days, though, public health officials are expressing concerns that a spike may come. One thing the governor didn’t mention yesterday when he announced the beginning of Phase 3 was the positivity rate — the rate of people testing positive for COVID-19. He has done so in previous briefings but didn’t include it yesterday. Wednesday the rate rose to nearly 7 percent, the highest rate since early May.
Democrat critics who jump ugly at the first chance are voicing opinions that it’s time to hit the brakes on reopening the state. They point to a lower number of tests performed than was hoped and the hiring process of 4,000 contact tracers has only produced 2,000 so far. Some in the medical community voice the same concerns.
Rep. Chris Turner, the chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, said the trends show “a troubling lack of progress.”
“Unfortunately, COVID-19 numbers are moving in the wrong direction right now and we need to tap the brakes, not step on the gas,” he said in a statement.
Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease expert at Baylor College, warned last month that the state is moving too quickly.
“I understand the importance of opening up the economy,” he told the Chronicle. “The worry I have is that we haven’t put in place a public health system — the testing, the contact tracing — that’s commensurate to sustain the economy.”
This isn’t naive optimism from Governor Abbott. He spoke of understanding that the virus is still here and self-distancing practices remain in place. Like everyone else, he is waiting for the arrival of a vaccine or medications to treat those who test positive for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, a slow and cautious reopening with an eye kept on the analysis of the numbers of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are showing signs of success. Abbott says if the trend continues, a full statewide reopening is possible this summer.
Does an increase in testing bring about an increase in cases? Sure. Testing increased during the last week by 36% while the number of confirmed infected cases rose by 51%, so an increase is real. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the spread of the outbreak is getting worse. Why the number of positive cases hasn’t decreased is a question going forward.
A poll released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University shows findings that 38 percent say Governor Abbott has moved too quickly and 12 percent saying he hasn’t moved fast enough. Under half of Texans agree with the phases of reopening, which sounds about right, given the current atmosphere in this political cycle. There is no separating politics from the nationwide economic shutdown, that’s for sure. This was a poll of 1,100 registered voters in Texas. The poll also shows Governor Abbott’s approval rating of 56% is unchanged since September. Registered voters used as polling data is often less reliable than using likely voters.
So, bars and restaurants can increase capacity levels and other businesses can reopen, like amusement parks, fine arts performance halls, and video game facilities. There are still restrictions along with the plan – bar patrons must remain seated. Table sizes in restaurants may expand from six to ten people. And, restaurants may expand occupancy levels to 75 percent on June 12.
Fine arts performance halls and video game facilities may reopen at 50 percent occupancy starting June 10. Beginning June 19, amusement parks and carnivals in counties with more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases may open at 50 percent capacity.
“As we begin Phase III, I ask all Texans and Texas businesses to continue following the standard health protocols and to heed the guidance of our state and federal officials who continue to closely monitor COVID-19,” Abbott said in the release. If we remain vigilant, we will continue to mitigate the spread of this virus, protect public health, and get more Texans back to work and their daily activities.”
Late last night Gov. Abbott tweeted: “Today Texas had the fewest #COVID19 hospitalizations in the past 6 weeks. And, we now rank #1 in America for the most recoveries from COVID.”
Today Texas had the fewest #COVID19 hospitalizations in the past 6 weeks.
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) June 4, 2020