AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Gov. Greg Abbott announced executive orders Friday that will reopen businesses and state parks, ease surgery restrictions and aim to reduce further spread of COVID-19 in Texas.
Abbott made the announcement at noon from the Texas Capitol.
“We’re now beginning to see glimmers that the worst of COVID-19 may soon be behind us,” Abbott said.
The first executive order announced by Abbott creates a statewide strike force to reopen Texas. The strike force includes Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Comptroller Glenn Hegar.
The strike force partner with a team of medical advisers and will work alongside an advisory committee of business leaders to help strategize ways to safely reopen businesses.
“They will work together to develop a medical architecture to comprehensively test and trace COVID-19 that will enable Texas to gradually and safely begin the process of returning to work and returning to other activities while we wait for the immunizations that will end the threat of COVID-19,” Abbott said.
The governor’s second executive order focuses on Texas’ medical staff affected by limitations placed on surgical procedures. The order eases restrictions on surgeries starting April 22. The goal of this order is to allow doctors to diagnose patients without an exception. The governor specifically used diagnostic tests for cancer as an example.
Additionally, while some restrictions are loosened, others will be enhanced such as standards for seniors in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. The order requires additional infection control policies and restricts the movement of staff between facilities.
The governor’s next executive order focuses on the retail sector in Texas.
“Retailers are such an important part of our economy,” said Abbott. “They provide you with products you need and want, and create so many jobs.”
Abbott says all stores in Texas should be able to operate “retail to go” starting April 24. Businesses will be able to sell products without customers entering the stores. Services “may be provided through pickup, delivery by mail, or delivery to the customer’s doorstep.”
“Because we’ve seen that this model works while also containing COVID-19, we believe that all stores in Texas to be able to operate retail to go, beginning next Friday,” Abbott said.
“This temporary plan allows you to access more retailers while also minimizing contact with others,” Abbott explained.
State health officials said Friday afternoon that Texas had 17,371 cases statewide. 169,536 Texans have been tested. The virus has caused 428 deaths and left 1,522 hospitalized. Though, 4,190 Texans have recovered.
The governor also announced state parks will reopen beginning April 20. Abbott said visitors to the parks must wear face coverings, practice social distancing and cannot be in groups of more than five people.
Abbott also said his team of medical advisers have determined that it would be unsafe for students to gather at schools for the foreseeable future. As a result, classrooms will remain closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. This includes all public, private and higher education campuses. Teachers can choose to return to schools for virtual instruction, administrative duties or to clean out their classrooms.
In a Friday afternoon statement, the Texas Education Agency indicated that the closure of school buildings for in-person classrooms “in no way ends at-home instructional support for Texas’s millions of students.”
“School districts across Texas have worked diligently to make the transition to virtual learning,” the agency statement reads. “Students must continue to receive daily academic support from the teachers and schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year.”
The governor teased that on April 27, his administration will share additional steps to reopen Texas and reduce risk of a resurgence of COVID-19. “In these next 10 days we will prepare a phased-in strategy to open Texas in a safe way,” he said.
The Governor first hinted on April 10 that he was working on a plan to reopen certain sectors of the state’s industries.
“We will focus on restoring lives while protecting livelihoods,” he said last week. “We can and we must do this, we can do both— expand and restore the livelihoods that Texans want to have by helping them return to work.”
On Monday, he said he would issue an executive order this week that would focus on economic revitalization, prioritizing commerce with “minimal or zero impact on the spread of COVID-19.”
“This is not going to be a rush the gates, everybody is able to suddenly reopen all at once,” Abbott said on Monday. “We have to understand that we must reopen in a way in which we are able to stimulate the economy while at the very same time ensuring that we contain the spread of COVID-19.
Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen prepared Texans for what could happen as state leaders aim to return Texas to a new version of normal.
“Even when we restart the economy, social distancing is still going to have to occur,” Bonnen said this week.
Texas Democrats are wary of the economic kickstart, saying there are a series of prerequisites that must be accomplished before communities would be ready for loosened restrictions.
“It is premature to open until we have clear testing,” State Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Carrollton, said on a Friday call with reporters.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, chair of the Texas House Public Health Committee, said on Thursday testing needs to become more widely available first to identify anyone who has COVID-19.
“The state of Texas is not healthy yet,” she explained. “We need to develop solutions now to expand our state’s capacity for the next outbreak, not if, but when the time comes.”
“Texas is still sick with this virus,” State Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, said Thursday. “Even if every single governmental restriction lifted tomorrow, most Texans are still not going to feel safe to go out and interact as part of the economy like they did in February.”
Zwiener’s preconditions are akin to what other Democrats in the state have voiced as top priorities. They include widespread testing capabilities, additional supplies for hospital workers, more information about a plan for older populations in nursing homes, expansion of health insurance so those who get sick can have easier access to health care, and a system in place for the contact tracing of positive cases.
“I want to see us get all of those health infrastructure pieces in place before we start taking any serious action to reopen the economy,” Zwiener said.
Read the three new executive orders:
Businesses cautiously optimistic
Gov. Abbott’s order to jump start the state’s struggling economy is good news to Katie Pierce, Chief Operating Officer of the women’s clothing store Hemline.
Hemline has 29 stores nationwide, including one in Downtown Austin.
Pierce says online orders only bring so much revenue. She says having another option like customer pickup willbe a huge lift.
“It’s hard,” she said. “I mean it’s nothing compared to having foot traffic.”
It’s a large step considering the ongoing debate in our county. Many believe opening the economy too early will compromise public health and lead to more virus outbreaks.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler says the risk of retail-to-go is the same as that of construction sites and grocery stores, because it depends on how well people protect themselves.
“It’s a risk that could be mitigated very well if everyone in the store is wearing face coverings,” he said.