Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announces team to restart the economy, loosens some restrictions

A previous executive order from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shuttered schools until midnight Friday, but his most recent order extends the shutdown until May 4. Photo credit: Jordan Vonderhaar/POOL via The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday announced initial steps to reopen the Texas economy during the coronavirus pandemic, including those that in the next week will loosen surgery restrictions at medical facilities, allow all retail stores to provide product pickups and reopen state parks.

Abbott also named a “statewide strike force” devoted to getting the economy going again. Austin banker James Huffines will chair the task force, while veteran lobbyist Mike Toomey will lead its staff. The group will oversee what Abbott described as a phased reopening, starting Friday with additional announcements set for April 27 and sometime in May.

At the same time, Abbott announced all Texas schools will stay closed through the rest of the academic year. He had previously shuttered them until May 4.

Abbott made the announcements during a news conference at the Texas Capitol that he began on a note of optimism.

“Because of the efforts by everyone to slow the spread, we’re now beginning to see glimmers that the worst of COVID-19 may soon be behind us,” Abbott said, noting the number of infections is “beginning to level off” and the death toll, while tragic, has “not come close to the early, dire predictions.”

“We have demonstrated that we can corral the coronavirus,” Abbott added.

In recent days, Abbott has faced pressure from some in his own party to reopen the state’s economy, while Democrats have argued Texas is nowhere near ready to do so, citing the state’s low testing level. Abbott insisted at the news conference that Texas was preparing to dramatically increase its testing capacity, but he did not provide details beyond suggesting a timeline of “late April or early May.”
After the news conference, state Rep. Chris Turner, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, issued a statement saying Abbott failed to “provide a clear plan for how Texas will increase testing.”

Abbott’s news conference Friday came a day after President Donald Trump announced guidelines for states to begin lifting restrictions. Trump has agitated for a reopening of the U.S. economy, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has echoed him at the state level, naming his own task force to restart the economy 10 days. Patrick said Friday his task force will be “working together” with Abbott’s.

Abbott said the task force will include fellow state leaders such as Patrick and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, as well as top medical experts including state health commissioner John Hellerstedt and Mark McClellan, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The medical advisers will focus on developing a strategy to “comprehensively test and trace COVID-19 that will enable Texas to gradually and safely” begin returning to normal, Abbott said.

The task force will be rounded out by an advisory group of business leaders, Abbott said, naming prominent entrepreneurs including Kendra Scott and Michael Dell.

The first phase came in a series of executive orders issued Friday. One order allows for product pickup at retail stores — what Abbott described as “retail-to-go” — that will begin April 24. Outlets will be allowed to bring orders straight to customers’ cars in a manner similar to how many restaurants are currently offering curbside pickup.

Another order, which goes into effect 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, will allow a limited amount of nonessential surgeries at hospitals, as long as those surgeries don’t deplete the hospitals’ supplies of personal protective equipment and allow the facilities to keep at least 25% of their capacity available for the treatment of patients with COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

A third order will allow state parks to open Monday. Visitors to parks will be required to wear masks and keep a safe distance from people outside their households.

Additional openings will be announced April 27 “after further input from medical staff,” Abbott said.

“Even more openings will be announced in May when it is determined that the infection rate continues to decline and when testing capabilities are sufficient to test and contain” outbreaks of the virus,” he said.

Abbott didn’t say what those later openings would entail. He did announce, however, that schools — public schools, private schools and universities — will remain closed for the rest of the school year.

State officials, including Abbott, have lately struck a more optimistic tone about the state of the pandemic. While continuing to decry the loss of life, Abbott has noted in recent days that social distancing measures appear to have slowed the spread of the virus.

“We’re now beginning to see glimmers that the worst of COVID-19 may soon be behind us,” he said Friday. “We have demonstrated that we can corral the coronavirus.”

Still, he stressed that the process of reopening will be “guided by data and doctors.”

“If the data continues to show a flatlining and then a decline” in positive tests, “that is a signal that we can begin the process of opening up some businesses that adhere to the strictest strategies that will reduce the spread of the coronavirus,” he said.

One thing that could delay the broader reopening of the economy is the availability of testing. The number of tests done in Texas stands at 169,536, according to the state figures. That continues to amount to a tiny fraction of Texas’ nearly 29 million people, fueling concerns about how state leaders can track the virus or know the full extent of the outbreak.

Citing recent talks with the White House, Abbott said Texas would be receiving a “dramatic increase” in testing — “not just testing those who may show symptoms, but also being able to test entire communities so that we have better information.” Pressed on specific numbers and a timeline, Abbott said Texans can expect a “massive amount of testing capability coming to Texas by late April or early May.”

The state’s task force will feature a handful of leaders in the medical field and more than 30 business executives. Huffines, the chair, previously served as Central and South Texas chairman of PlainsCapital Bank in Austin. From 2003-10, he served on the University of Texas System Board of Regents, including two stints as chair.

Toomey, who will be the top full-time staffer for the group, is best known as a close adviser to former Gov. Rick Perry, for whom he was chief of staff. Toomey, a former state representative, also was chief of staff to ex-Gov. Bill Clements. Toomey is currently a partner at Texas Lobby Group.

Abbott’s news conference came as the number of coronavirus cases in Texas climbed to at least 17,371, including 428 deaths, according to the latest numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services. Out of Texas’ 254 counties, 192 are reporting cases.

Disclosure: James Huffines, the University of Texas System and Plains Capital Bank have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

“Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announces team to restart the economy, loosens some restrictions” was first published at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/04/17/texas-reopening-greg-abbott-coronavirus/ by The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state.

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