By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune:
Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday announced initial steps to re-open the Texas economy as it continues to reel from the coronavirus pandemic.
During a news conference at the Texas Capitol, Abbott said Texans’ efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus were paying off.
“We’re now beginning to see glimmers that the worst of COVID-19 may soon be behind us,” Abbott said. “We have demonstrated that we can corral the coronavirus.”
To get the economy going again, Abbott named a “statewide strike force” chaired by James Huffines, the Austin banker and former UT regent. The task force staff will be led by Mike Toomey, a veteran lobbyist who was chief of staff to Abbott’s predecessor, Rick Perry.
Abbott offered a host of names that will advise the task force, including fellow statewide officials, top medical experts and business leaders. You can view those names — as well as Abbott’s executive order establishing the task force — here.
After naming the task force, Abbott said he was issuing an executive order loosening the restrictions he previously put in place on non-essential surgeries. You can view the new executive order here.
Abbott also announced he was letting retail outlets re-open April 24 to offer “retail-to-go” — meaning the outlets can make deliveries to customers’ cars outside their location or to customers’ homes. That executive order is here.
Abbott then said he’s allowing state parks to re-open Monday, but with a few requirements for visitors. Visitors have to wear face coverings, they have to keep a 6-foot distance from people outside their group, and there can’t be gatherings larger than five people.
Finally, Abbott announced that all Texas schools will remain closed through the end of the school year. The closure applies to all public and private schools and institutions of higher learning.
Abbott promised to have another announcement April 27 about additional steps to re-open Texas.
• Abbott was asked about concerns about testing, and what strategies and benchmarks the state is planning as it begins to re-open. Citing recent talks with the White House, he 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.”
• Abbott was asked about the general timeline for all businesses to re-open. He said he’ll be guided by medical experts and data. “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,” Abbott said.
• Abbott was asked whether his new executive order on surgeries affects the abortion ban that came with his previous order on surgeries. That abortion ban is being challenged in the courts. “Ultimately, obviously that will be a decision for courts to make,” Abbott said. He later said the abortion issue is “not part of” his new order.
• Abbott was asked about employers who may “push the envelope” and their employees who may be concerned about returning to work. “Employees should not be coerced into returning to work,” Abbott said. “We need to make sure that our employees and that employers … are employing the very best strategies” to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
• Abbott was asked how his announcements today impact the stay-at-home order that he issued late last month, which is effective through April 30. Abbott noted what he announced today were “additional exceptions to that stay-at-home policy.” Abbott also noted that more news will be coming April 27, and he said “one of the things that we will consider is the elimination of the stay-at-home policy.” If the data shows Texas is continuing to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Abbott added, it’s possible the state could go back to the statewide standards it had prior to the stay-at-home order.
• Abbott was asked about a potential resurgence of the coronavirus as businesses begin to re-open. “There is a possibility of a resurgence of COVID-19,” Abbott said. “That’s one of the reasons why we will utilize enhanced testing strategies, enhanced containment strategies, to make sure that when it does arise,” we’ll be ready. Abbott added that if a “spread does arise in a very meaningful way, there may need to be pockets of the economy shut down.” For example, if cases begin to spike again in one particular community, there may need to be “a stricter standard for that one community versus statewide.”
• Abbott was asked for more details on the expanded testing capacity that he expects Texas to have. Abbott said the new testing comes from the private sector and then deferred to state health commissioner John Hellerstedt, who echoed Abbott on the private sector but said public health authorities are also significantly growing their capacity. He noted the state was seeing a “more reliable supply of … swab collection kits” and also mentioned “new technologies that are coming along every day.”
• Abbott was asked about unemployment benefits and the potential for the state to run out of money to provide them. Abbott said the coronavirus relief passed by Congress includes a “massive amount of money that provides more unemployment benefits for a longer period of time, so there should be plenty of money for those who are unemployed.” Abbott also noted Congress is “considering additional programs that could be coming up as soon as May” to give states even more money for benefits. Asked about potential tax hikes on businesses to pay for benefits*, Abbott didn’t seem to fully understand the question but said, “There won’t be any tax hikes in Texas.”