Reopenings Threaten Texans’ Lives. Does Greg Abbott Care?

Gov. Greg Abbott announces modifications to executive order ...
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference on May 4. (Photo via Click2Houston.)

By Terrance Turner

May 8, 2020

Today, a number of local businesses opened, thanks to an executive order by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. “This Friday, cosmetology salons, barbershops, hair salons, nail salons, and tanning salons are able to open,” Abbott said during a May 5 press conference. Each stylist can only have one customer at a time, he added. This is provided that all establishments follow social distancing of at least six feet. Swimming pools may also reopen, provided that they operate at 25% capacity.

Abbott also announced that wedding venues and churches that conduct weddings may open immediately. Weddings held indoors but outside of a house of worship must only operate at 25% capacity. Wedding receptions must also be at 25% capacity unless they’re outdoors, according to the press release on the governor’s website.

In addition, Gov. Abbott proclaimed that beginning May 18, locker rooms and gyms may also reopen. But locker rooms and shower facilities must remain closed. Gyms, too, must operate at 1/4 of their capacity. The same goes for office workforces and unspecified “manufacturing services” that are allowed to open that day. The press release said that these new rules would go into effect at 12:01 am today.

“Texas is in a position to continue operating parts of our economy because of the efforts and determination of the people of Texas,” the governor said. Certainly, the Texas population (29 million) has largely worked together to help flatten the curve of Covid-19. But is Texas really in a position to reopen? Is it?

Is it?

On April 30, the day before Abbott began reopening the economy, 50 deaths were reported, along with 1000 new cases of coronavirus. But that wasn’t enough to stop Abbott from reopening. Gov. Abbott allowed his stay-at-home order to expire on April 30. The next day, his executive order took effect, allowing restaurants, retail stores, and movie theaters to reopen on May 1.

According to ABC’s Austin affiliate KVUE, Texas health officials reported 2000 new cases between May 2-3. On May 2, CBS station KHOU confirmed that 1,293 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Texas. On Sunday, May 3, the number of COVID-19 cases in Texas passed 1,000 for the fourth consecutive day. (According to the Associated Press, deaths increased by at least 20 that day.) The Austin-American Statesman said that 1,026 fresh cases had been reported on May 3. (It added that the only previous days with more than 1000 cases were April 8 and April 10.) On May 4, 784 new cases were added.

In media appearances, Gov. Abbott has stressed the recovery rate, noting that Texas has among the highest recovery rates in the state. While raw data indicate that Texas is third in the nation for recoveries, that isn’t one of the White House guidelines for reopening.

“Understand that Texas either has the 3rd or 4th best — meaning lowest — death rate in the United States,” Abbott said in a television interview with KVUE. But the highest death counts are in Harris County and Dallas County. On May 4, Harris had 6,967 confirmed cases and more than 130 deaths, according to Dr. Umair A. Shah, executive director for the county’s public health department. Harris County includes the City of Houston, and Houston also experienced a spike.

ABC 13 revealed on May 3 that Houston had 115 new cases of COVID-19. There were also five deaths — the highest single-day death total for Houston since this pandemic started. “In this entire time period, we’ve never reported, in the city of Houston, more than five deaths. So this equals the maximum that we have ever reported of people that passed away on any given day,” Turner said.

Things got worse the next day. The Daily Beast reported on May 4:

“Harris, which includes the city of Houston and is the third-largest county in the United States, had 6,967 confirmed cases on Monday and more than 130 deaths, according to Dr. Umair A. Shah, executive director for the county’s public health department. There were 129 new cases overnight”

From “Texans Brace for a COVID-19 ‘Explosion’ Just Days After Reopening”

In Dallas County, the numbers were similarly bleak. On May 3, the county had its highest number of cases up to that point, with 234 new cases and 11 deaths. The next day, another 237 cases were added. The Dallas County Health and Human Services Department announced 251 cases from COVID-19 on May 7. “Today replaces yesterday as our second-highest day of new positive COVID-19 cases,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. Yesterday, 249 deaths were reported, according to NBC 5. The 10 deaths that day tied a county record.

Currently, there are an estimated 16,670 active cases of COVID-19 in Texas. Per the Texas Dept. of Health, there have been 1,049 fatalities. Today brought even more bad news. According to Houston Chronicle reporter Jeremy Wallace:

This past weekend, Texas surpassed a thousand deaths from COVID-19. But here we are, ready to reopen a slew of other Texas businesses. And Abbott has added insult to injury (literally) by publicly tussling with local authorities.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a controversial order last month requiring all Harris County residents to wear masks in public. Gov. Abbott swiftly moved to undermine the order — and its penalty of $1000 fine for anyone who didn’t comply.

“We strongly recommend that everyone wear a mask,” Abbott said in a press conference. “However, it’s not a mandate. And we make clear that no jurisdictions can impose any type of penalty or fine.” He then announced that his executive order would supersede local orders — effectively nullifying Hidalgo’s order. (She later amended her order to conform to his.)

In a May 6 proclamation posted on the Texas Governor’s website, Abbott called for fines and even jail time for those who violated his executive orders:

WHEREAS, under Section 418.173, failure to comply with any executive order issued during the COVID-19 disaster is an offense punishable by a fine not to exceed $1,000, confinement in jail for a term not to exceed 180 days, or both fine and confinement.

“Governor Abbott Issues Executive Order To Expand Openings Of Certain Businesses and Activities” (gov.texas.gov)

But after Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther was jailed for violating a stay-home order (and refusing to apologize to a judge), Abbott did a 180. In a Fox News interview, Abbott spoke out against Houston enforcing HIS order. “In Houston, they were issuing fines and potential jail time for anybody who refused to wear a mask,” Abbott told host Sean Hannity. “Wearing a mask is the best practice. However, no one should forfeit their liberty and be sent to jail for not wearing a mask.”

He then went even further. The Chronicle quotes him as saying, in a written statement to the media: “Throwing Texans in jail who have had their businesses shut down through no fault of their own is nonsensical, and I will not allow it to happen.” But that’s exactly what Abbott did allow, by issuing his executive order.

On May 8, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo pointed out the obvious contradiction:

Abbott later amended his executive order by striking down the section that introduced fines and potential jail time. But by then, the political damage was already done. And the damage to Texas residents was only just beginning.

UPDATE (May 14, 2020): This week has brought another surge in both new cases and deaths from COVID-19. Gov. Abbott’s order to reopen barbershops and salons took force on May 8. Since then, cases have spiked. According to the Texas Dept. of Health Services, 1,179 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Texas on Tuesday. “Texas, which began to open its businesses at the beginning of May, has reported more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 for five consecutive days,” The Hill reported.

Obviously, these positive tests may very well represent infections from two or three weeks ago. Granted, Gov. Abbott cannot be held responsible for the rise in infections or deaths. But he has made himself a convenient target for criticism. Abbott publicly denounced local leaders for enforcing the orders that he himself signed (!). And his conflicting positions on those orders have left many Texans confused about how to proceed.

Continuing to open businesses, even as cases continue to soar, will surely expose more Texans to infection. Yet the deadly spike on the first weekend in May seemed to not affect Abbott at all. He designated several more businesses to reopen just a week later (last Friday, May 8). Coronavirus cases (and deaths) may well keep rising after more state businesses open next week. The question now is whether Gov. Abbott even cares.

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