Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced executive orders Friday that will ease some of the most severe restrictions imposed to combat the spread of COVID-19.
However, all Texas classrooms, public and private, will remain closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.
Abbott said that all stores in Texas will be able to operate retail to-go beginning next Friday, one week from today.
Abbott said state parks will be reopened beginning this coming Monday. Visitors must wear face coverings or masks and maintain a distance of six feet from non-family members and not gather in groups of more than five.
He said that effective April 22, the ban on non-essential surgery will be loosened to allow doctors to diagnose and treat more conditions, like diagnostic testing for cancer, without having to get an exemption.
Abbott said he was imposing infection control procedures to better protect residents of nursing homes and senior living centers and to limit movement of staff between facilities.
Abbott also named a Strike Force to Open Texas led by banker James Huffines, with Mike Toomey as its chief operating officer. Toomey, a former chief of staff to Govs. Rick Perry and Bill Clements, has taken a leave of absence from Texas Lobby Group to take the position.
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, state Attorney General Ken Paxton, and state Comptroller Glenn Hegar will serve as consulting members of the strike force.
Abbott named Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt as chief medical officer of the strike force, supported by three chief medical advisers - Dr. John Zerwas, executive vice-chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System; Dr. Mark McClellan, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner and U.S. medicaid and medicare administrator, and Dr. Parker Hudson, assistant professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at Dell Medical School and program director for the internal medicine residency.
“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,” Abbott said.
The governor also named 39 business leaders representing the state’s regions and industries to a special advisory council who will share ideas to help businesses strategically reopen while containing the spread of COVID-19. Former state Sen. Kirk Watson, founding dean of the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs, will also serve on the council.
“Together, we can bend the curve. Together we can overcome this pandemic. We can get folks back to work. We can adopt safe strategies that prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Abbott said. “And, step by step, we will open Texas.”
Abbott thanked Texans for their cooperation through a very difficult period.
“Because of efforts by everyone to slow the spread we’re beginning to see glimmers that the worst of COVID19 may soon be behind us,” Abbott said. “Deaths, while far too high, will not come close to the early dire predictions.”
Abbott’s briefing comes after President Donald Trump ceded authority for reopening state economies to governors.
“You’re going to call your own shots,” Trump told governors on a conference call Thursday, according to an audio recording obtained by the Associated Press. “We’re going to be standing alongside you.”
But the president did release new guidelines for easing restrictions in areas with low transmission of the coronavirus, and a very gradual return to normalcy.
At his last news briefing on Monday, Abbott said that, “later this week I will outline both safe and healthy strategies where we can go about reopening businesses in Texas and revitalizing our economy.”
He also said that he would let Texans know whether classrooms would be opening again this spring.
Abbott made it clear that reopening the economy would be a slow, deliberate process.
“This isn’t going to be a rushing the gates, everyone is able to suddenly reopen all at once,” he said.
Abbott said the process will be guided by a team that will put together a comprehensive strategy, with input from medical professionals, for “what must be done for Texas to open back up.”
But, he said, “Our primary goal in the state of Texas right now is to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, contain it, make sure the state is a safe place for all Texans.”
Speaking on Fox Monday night with Sean Hannity, Abbott said, “Texans love to work and we want them to get back to work but we have to do so in a very safe way so we don’t regenerate the coronavirus in the state of Texas.”
“But we’re working on strategies as we speak, with medical experts, with business leaders, to find the right strategy so that we can unleash our economy,” Abbott said. “Texas was the No. 1 state for job creation in the nation last year. We are leading in gross domestic product. America needs Texas to get back to business.”
On Thursday, about 150 protesters demonstrated in front of the governor’s mansion calling for an end to Abbott’s stay-at-home order, which exempts those performing essential services or involved in essential activities, like grocery shopping or exercising.
On Tuesday, a group of leaders affiliated with the tea party wing of the Texas Republican Party wrote Abbott that, “Texas should enact a clearly communicated and citizen-driven plan to prudently and carefully return Texans to work, to church, and possibly back to school.”
But Texas Democrats cautioned that Abbott should be guided by sound medical advice, and by the need for far more testing than the state is now engaged in.
“The governor is the chief executive of our state,” state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a conference call with reporters Thursday. “He should be guided by science and make the right decisions no matter how many different places he feels pressure from, and it’s just vitally important that whatever decisions he’s made are in the interests of the public health and are guided by public health experts and not by ideologically driven motivations which seem to be what some of the voices are driven by that we’re hearing.”
U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, were tapped Thursday to serve with other senators on a group aimed at reopening the economy.
“There are reasonable steps we can and must take now — based on the science and public health guidance — to begin safely reopening the economy and helping the American people return to work, from increasing the production of personal protective equipment to making testing more widely available,” Cruz said. “As a part of President Trump’s bipartisan task force, I’ll be working to do just that.”
In a conference call Thursday with Texas reporters, Cornyn said it made sense to leave discretion to state and local leaders.
“I think that’s entirely appropriate given the fact that this virus has not been uniform in terms of where it has attacked, and different locations have different challenges and issues,” Cornyn said.
“Obviously, Midland, Texas, is not New York City,” Cornyn said. “And it’s pretty obvious to all of us that this virus loves a crowd, but it can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound.”