Ultimately, Abbott took a measured approach. Instead of launching a full reboot, the governor of Texas has announced that a group of medical and economic experts will guide him through a series of additional steps to slowly reopen the state’s economy.
The group’s aggressive name, “Strike Force to Open Texas,” belies Abbott’s surprisingly cautious frame. Plans to restart the business will not come until April 27, and Abbott said they would be determined by “the data and the doctors.”
Yet Abbott is ahead of the curve as one of the first great state governors to announce a firm timetable for the lifting of his stay at home order on April 2.
“The opening in Texas must be done in stages,” said Abbott during his briefing on Friday. “Obviously, not all businesses can open all at once on May 1. Opening private companies prematurely, he said, would risk further epidemics and “would be more likely to push us back, rather than propel us forward.”
Texas is inundated with jobless claims that have exceeded one million in the past four weeks, accounting for about 7.2% of the state’s total workforce.
At the same time, it has only been two weeks since Abbott issued his home stay order. Texas remains woefully behind many other large states in the country in terms of the number of coronavirus tests performed, which made Abbott’s early optimism about the reopening even more striking. In a state of 29 million people, only 169,536 coronavirus tests were done on Friday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, with a total of 17,371 reported cases and 428 coronavirus-related deaths.
This has put Abbott in a difficult position of having to protect the economy of Texas while heeding the warnings of epidemiologists. As he discussed plans to get Texas back to work, Abbott alternated between sounding like Texas was among the first states ready to open and taking a more cautious tone.
Throughout the week, as Abbott’s public messages made it less likely that he would announce a grand reopening, he began shooting members of his own party who said he went too slowly to revive the economy and was too deferential to public health experts. On Thursday, for example, Don Huffines, a former Republican senator from Texas who represented Dallas County, wrote a blister editorial for the Austin American-Statesman, who apologized to Abbott for handling the coronavirus crisis.
Huffines accused Abbott of being in contact with “emotional decision makers in Washington who have caused massive economic damage” instead of recognizing the power of Texas as a sovereign state.
“He relies on Washington for leadership and lets local leaders enter where his lack of leadership creates a void. Abbott is solely responsible for the destruction of Texas’s economy, “Huffines wrote.
Meanwhile, Texas Democrats highlight a recent Houston Chronicle survey article that says Texas is near the bottom among the 50 states in per capita tests.
“As difficult as it may be, Texas has to wait for the right time to reopen,” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “If our leaders ignore the advice of public health officials, we risk an even deeper health and economic disaster. Lives are at stake. ”
In the end, what Abbott and many other elected officials face is much more than a mere economic decision.
“It is ultimately a moral dilemma between the good of the majority of the population based on an improvement in the economy, and those most damaged by letting this disease continue to spread and potentially letting the submerged hospital system, “said Bill Gilmer, economist at the University of Houston. “It’s not just about economics, it’s a moral decision. “
A push to expand testing
In interviews with CNN this week, Texas medical and public health officials warned that Texas was far from the level of testing necessary to draw firm conclusions about the extent of the epidemic.
“It has to be on a much higher scale than it has been,” said Alanna C. Morrison, epidemiologist and head of department in the School of Public Health at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. “They’ve tested people who are really symptomatic or in the hospital, and it needs to be more widespread. “
She noted that Harris County, which includes Houston, has about 4.7 million people, but last week: “We only had 12,585 tests, which for me, as an epidemiologist, was amazing, “said Morrison. This week’s county-by-county test data was not yet available at the time of Abbott’s briefing.
Abbott said on Friday that Texas had “the second highest Covid-19 recovery rate of any state in America” and the current availability of hospital beds. “We have shown that we can stop the coronavirus,” said the governor.
But these are strengths in a sea of inconclusive data on the spread of the coronavirus across Texas. Pressured by the state’s overdue testing capacity on Friday, Abbott said it expects a significant increase in testing availability by the end of April, but has refused to set a target on the number of tests needed per day.
However, he said the number of business openings in May will depend on whether the “infection rate continues to drop” and whether the testing capacity is sufficient to contain the epidemics of the virus.
The state’s trend line for both cumulative and cumulative deaths continued to increase this week, according to state health data released on Friday.
Perhaps most notably, the state is still two weeks from April 29 when the University of Washington Institute of Metrology and Health Assessment forecasts that Texas coronavirus deaths and the need resources will increase.
“You hope our testing capacity will be higher when the economy reopens,” said Timothy Callaghan, assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Texas A&M School of Public Health. “If you want to send everyone back to work, even before the peak, you risk spreading the virus – and potentially rapid spread. “
Abbott’s home stay order is in effect throughout the state, but local officials – including elected county judges who direct emergency management, as well as many other administrative and judicial functions – have proposed various assessments of the expected rate of reopening. in their counties. (Statewide ordering currently replaces all local orders).
On Thursday evening, judge Lina Hidalgo, a democratic judge from Harris County, informed the journalists behind closed doors on Thursday. She stressed the need for “mass testing”.
“Universal, rapid tests to let everyone know who’s healthy and who’s not. This is the only way to return to work, “she said. “Without adequate testing capacity, fighting Covid-19 is like shooting in the dark. “
Mobile test sites in Harris County have been “overwhelmed” by demand, said Hidalgo – the state added two mobile laboratories in the Houston area Thursday – prompting local officials to scramble to move the resources. In an interview earlier this week, Hidalgo’s director of communications, Rafael Lemaitre, noted that beyond test shortages, results often take a week to come back. “We are the third largest county in the United States and we want to be the next domino to fall,” he said.
A cheap crude bath
Abbott’s job of restarting the Texas economy is made even more difficult by the collapse in oil prices, sparked by a struggle between Russia and Saudi Arabia to dominate the world crude market. This has led to a historic oversupply and a 50% drop in the price of a barrel of oil since mid-February. While this has pushed gas prices to less than $ 2 a gallon in most of the United States, it has also wiped out billions of dollars in economic activity across oil-rich Texas.
This is an additional emergency for business leaders who pushed Abbott toward a reopening plan, while stressing that it should be done in close coordination with medical experts. At the Greater Houston Partnership, the regional chamber of commerce, last week, a group of business leaders began formulating a plan on how to get the state back to work.
“We think it’s time to start a conversation about the economic recovery, but it’s just a conversation,” said Bob Harvey, CEO of the partnership.
Even before the economic shock of the coronavirus shutdown – and before many Americans simply stopped driving – layoffs were already spreading in the oil economy in Texas, with many regions, including Houston, facing a potential recession due to cheap oil.
“Along with what’s going on around the virus, much of Houston’s economy is still heading in a negative direction around oil and gas,” said Harvey, who noted that this latest slowdown could rival that 1980s when cheap oil cost the Houston economy one in eight jobs.
The federal government has administered some relief, with Trump promising to pay close attention to the needs of the energy sector. Abbott touted Thursday that Texas ranks first among the Small Business Administration’s approvals for loans through the Paycheck Protection Program “to help businesses stay afloat and prepare to reopen.” The federal government has approved some 88,434 loans for Texas businesses totaling $ 21.7 billion, he said.
But many small business owners believe that public servants will need to do much more to boost the economy. Smita Patel, owner of the River Oaks Flower House in Houston, says nothing has affected her business on this scale in 21 years.
“I mean, usually we have hurricanes and bad storms and everything, but we recover, don’t we?” Patel told CNN in an interview on Tuesday, noting that she and her husband paid their workers out of pocket. “We take it one day at a time. “
Daniella Diaz, Matthew Philips and Kate Trafecante from CNN contributed to this report.