Starting Friday, stores, restaurants, malls and movie theaters in Texas can reopen at reduced capacity.
(CN) — Ten days after easing restrictions on some businesses and medical procedures, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced Monday the next steps in the state’s economic reopening this week.
Malls, movie theaters, retail stores and restaurants can open at a maximum of 25% occupancy on May 1, the governor said, and museums and libraries are also allowed to open at this reduced capacity, though hands-on exhibits are prohibited.
In counties with five or fewer confirmed cases of Covid-19 – the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus – those establishments can reopen at 50% capacity.
“Even in low-population counties, Covid-19 can still spread very rapidly,” Abbott said during a press conference Monday afternoon.
The governor said all licensed healthcare professionals can operate with few restrictions, but 50% of hospital capacity must be reserved for Covid-19 patients. Texas will also allow outdoor sports involving four players or fewer, such as tennis and golf.
Abbott, a Republican, cited new outbreaks in China and Singapore in announcing the new phase of lifted restrictions.
“It’s hard to get rid of this virus because it is so contagious,” he said. “So we’re not just going to open up and hope for the best.”
If there is no flare-up of the disease, Abbott said the next phase of relaxing restrictions will begin as early as May 18 — enough time for the state’s strike force, announced during the governor’s last press conference on April 17, to determine whether rates of confirmed cases, hospitalization and fatalities are rising or declining.
“We want to usher in phase two as quickly as possible,” Abbott said.
The governor repeatedly said Texas would administer 25,000 tests per day by mid-May. The state is testing between 15,000 and 20,000 people each day — far below the 45,000 daily tests that a Harvard study suggests Texas needs to perform before safely reopening the state’s economy.
The next phase will bring more business openings — perhaps for the barber shops, hair salons, bars and gyms that will remain closed come Friday — and raise the capacity rate to 50%.
“We are Texans,” Abbott said Monday. “We got this.”
The governor also detailed the state’s test-and-trace plan, which comes in three phases. Phase one is complete, as 1,157 state and local contact tracers have begun work and a contact tracing app and Covid-19 call center have been established.
Monday marks the beginning of phase two of the tracing plan, which will see the addition of 1,000 more tracers and statewide deployment of access to the app and call center. Phase three, slotted for May 11, aims for 4,000 tracers, expansion of the tracing app to local health departments and continued support for the call center.
The governor pointed residents to the state’s reopening guidelines. He explained that his office’s suggestion to wear masks in public is not a mandate.
“We make it clear that no jurisdiction can impose any type of penalty or fine for anyone not wearing a mask,” Abbott said. “Everyone should be encouraged. But my executive order supersedes local orders.”
He noted that individuals and businesses defying his orders are liable to pay a $1,000 fine and spend up to 180 days in jail, and that businesses can lose their license if they violate the orders.
Abbott severely limited media access to the press conference. Only reporters from the Associated Press and Houston’s NBC affiliate were allowed to attend, restricting the press’ ability to ask the governor questions about his plan.
In a press call hosted after the governor’s conference, the Texas Democratic Party lambasted Abbott’s announcements and likened him to “Donald Trump without the rhetoric.”
The Democrats also noted that Texas ranks 49th in Covid-19 tests administered per capita, citing a Texas Department of State Health Services statistic indicating only 0.71% of Texans have been tested.
According to the state’s official count, 7,926 cases of Covid-19 and 235 fatalities have been confirmed since Abbott’s previous press conference.
Within a half hour after Monday’s press conference, “So Texas” began trending on Twitter, as nearly 5,000 tweets beginning with the phrase were written criticizing the governor, lamenting the continued closure of gyms and making jokes about the relaxed rules.
Ten days ago, Abbott announced the end of the 2019-2020 school year and the opening of state parks for day use. He signed an executive order permitting nonessential retail services to operate via pickup as well as mail and doorstep delivery, and also decreed that doctors could perform surgeries and other procedures so long as doctors did not ask for personal protective equipment, such as masks and respirators, from public sources.