Texas: Governor looks to reopen businesses in early May

Plans for opening businesses will be announced on April 27, depending on whether the state has been able to contain the coronavirus, but schools will be closed for the remainder of the school year. Abbott, a Republican, stressed that the framework would be determined by “data and by doctors” and continued adherence to social distancing guidelines.

“Because of the efforts by everyone to slow the spread, we’re now beginning to see glimmers that the worst of Covid-19 may soon be behind us,” Abbott said at a news conference.

The red state governor’s cautious approach to opening private businesses served as an important counterpoint to President Donald Trump’s optimism about the readiness of the economy. Texas has long brandished its reputation as one of the most pro-business states in the country, yet Abbott said repeatedly that data from medical experts will guide his orders about what kinds of businesses will reopen in May at a time when schools will remain closed.

Abbott’s “Strike Force to Open Texas” will include Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who stirred controversy across the nation in late March by arguing that Americans should be allowed to go back to work — as well as Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt.

Among the medical experts who will serve on the advisory council are Dr. Mark McClellan, the former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner and U.S. Medicaid and Medicare Administrator; Dr. John Zerwas, who is executive vice-chancellor for Health Affairs at the University of Texas system; and Dr. Parker Hudson, an assistant professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at Dell Medical School.

Those doctors will work in collaboration with several dozen business leaders including Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies; businessman Ross Perot Jr.; jewelry entrepreneur Kendra Scott; Brad Heffington, the owner of Heffington Farms, Inc. and Triple T Irrigation, Inc.; and Kathy Britton, the CEO of Perry Homes, along with a number of small business owners.

“We have demonstrated that we can corral the coronavirus,” Abbott said, pointing to a statistic that Texas has the “second-most recoveries from Covid-19 of all states in America.”

“Understand this: opening in Texas must occur in stages. Obviously, not all businesses can open all at once on May the first. Some businesses, if fully open, without better distancing standards, would be more likely to set us back, rather than to propel us forward. A more strategic approach is required to ensure that we don’t reopen only to have to shut down once again.”

Texas, however, has conducted only 169,536 coronavirus tests as of early Friday afternoon in a state of 29 million people, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. There are more than 17,300 coronavirus cases reported so far and 428 coronavirus-related fatalities. An estimated 4,190 patients have recovered from the virus.

In contrast, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has said his state of 20 million people has tested more than 500,000 people for coronavirus over the past month. California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has set a goal of conducting 25,000 tests a day by the end of this month within the state’s population of 40 million people.

Abbott has said the state is trying to ramp up testing in partnership with private industry and has said he sees “glimmers of hope” in testing data so far “with a bunch of red flags attached.”

Trump takes a victory lap for a crisis that isn't over yet

Trump takes a victory lap for a crisis that isn't over yet

The Republican governor has spoken frequently with Vice President Mike Pence as the Trump administration tries to help bolster the struggling energy sector, and Abbott said he also conferred with Trump about his reopening plans over the weekend.

Unemployment claims in Texas rose above one million over the past month, representing about 7.2% of the state’s total labor force, leading some business leaders to nudge Abbott toward reopening. The state’s economy is reeling not only from coronavirus closures but also the plunge in oil prices, which have fallen from about $60 a barrel down below $20 since January.

The need for coronavirus resources in Texas will not peak until April 29, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and local officials have cited ongoing concerns about the inadequate level of testing.

Abbott issued his stay-at-home order on April 2. Since then, he has said he is working on plans to reopen private businesses “slowly, strategically, smartly and safely.”

This story has been updated to include additional comments and background information.

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