Texas governor begins easing restrictions to reopen economy
AUSTIN (AP) — Texas is easing restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday, starting next week by letting retailers sell items for curbside pickup, resuming elective surgeries and reopening state parks.
But Texas’ tiptoeing toward restarting one of the world’s largest economies immediately ran into new questions and skepticism, and came at the end of what has been the deadliest week in the state of 29 million people for those infected with COVID-19. It also comes as President Donald Trump urged states to “LIBERATE!” their workforce, and as Abbott faces pressure from both conservatives who are eager to get Texas back to work and Democrats who are wary of going too quickly.
Texas ranks last in the U.S. in coronavirus testing per capita, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data collected by The COVID Tracking Project. Abbott said future decisions on reopening more of Texas would be guided by testing, and although he assured that testing would “go up quite a bit” in late April or early May, he did not provide a number.
He also said courts would decide whether his lifting restrictions on nonessential surgeries means abortion clinics can reopen. Providers say their clients are traveling to as far away as Illinois and Georgia to terminate pregnancies.
“Step by step, we will open up Texas,” Abbott said during a televised announcement from the Texas Capitol.
Universities and schools for more than 5 million Texas public school students, however, won’t reopen before summer, and Abbott said broader stay-at-home orders designed to increase social distancing remain in effect through the end of April.
Another phase of reopening Texas is set to be announced April 27, but Abbott did not provide any criteria or other details.
His plan brought swift approval from business groups and doctors, but some of Texas’ biggest cities took a cautious view.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has begun wearing a face mask in his daily news briefings, said he needed more details and offered a reminder that the fourth-largest city in the U.S. had yet to reach a peak of coronavirus cases.
“The testing is the key piece,” said Turner, a Democrat. “The misstep will be if you open it up and you don’t have the widespread, ubiquitous testing.”
At least 428 people have died in Texas, with more than one-third of those deaths having been reported since Monday, according to state health figures. At least 17,300 people in Texas have tested positive for the virus, which causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, can cause more severe illness or death.
White House guidelines recommend that states pass checkpoints that look at new cases, testing and surveillance data over the prior 14 days before advancing from one phase to another. Governors of both parties have made clear they will move at their own pace.
Conservatives are pressuring Abbott to unleash businesses as Texas is struggling to handle a crush of more than 1 million people who have filed for unemployment since the crisis began. Democrats, who have a shot at retaking the the Texas House in November for the first time in 20 years, are ratcheting up their criticism of Texas’ testing capacity and a stretched supply of protective equipment for medical workers.
Abbott said taking restraints off businesses doesn’t mean employers should coerce workers who are worried about contracting COVID-19 back on the job.
“We need to make sure that our employees feel safe,” he said.
Only recently have some Texas cities rolled out programs for anyone to get tested, regardless of whether they are symptomatic. In Austin, public health officials on Friday announced a plan to boost testing by as much as 2,000 per week with an online application that allows people to bypass a referral from a doctor.
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