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Gov. Abbott nixes mask penalties but keeps hair salons, bars, gyms closed in working to reopen Texas

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By Paul Weber, The Associated Press

POOL REPORT:

AUSTIN – Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that Texas would begin a gradual reopening of retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and other businesses starting May 1. He also said Texas should soon have the ability test 25,000 people a day for the coronavirus.

He said details of how the state would get back work are laid out in his “Governor’s Report to Reopen Texas,” available here.

“It’s hard to get rid of this virus because it is so contagious,” Abbott said. “So, we’re not just going to open up and hope for the best. Instead we will put measures in place that will help businesses open but also contain the virus and keeping Texans safe.”

Abbott said he would let his original stay-at-home executive order signed earlier this month expire April 30. After that, Abbott said a first phase of reopening will begin with allowing businesses to let in customers at 25% capacity if they are in counties with more than five confirmed cases of coronavirus.

Shops and restaurants in rural counties with fewer than five cases of COVID-19 can reopen up to 50% of occupancy. But Abbott said counties could revert to more limited capacity if there is a new outbreak of coronavirus cases.

He said Texas could lift more restrictions as soon as May 18 barring “flare-ups” of COVID-19 cases, which he said will be measured by data including hospitalizations and deaths.

Abbott said barbershops, hair salons, bars and gyms must still remain closed for now, with the hope those businesses will be able to resume business on or no later than mid-May.

Abbott made the announcement at his office in the Texas Capitol alongside Lt. Gov Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Texas Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt, Texas Department of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd and James Huffines, the chairman of Abbott’s “Strike Force to Reopen Texas.”

Abbott began the news conference by saying Texas has the third-most recoveries in the U.S. and that the number of people who have recovered from COVID-19 would soon exceed active cases.

He also announced plans to build a team of 4,000 contact tracers in May. Hellerstedt said the federal government has also committed to “solving some of the supply chain problems that have been limiting some of our ability to test.” He said when those scarcities ease, Texas will be able to ramp up testing.

Abbott also took questions, including:

  • Asked about thresholds Texas will set to determine whether stricter measures need to be restored, Abbott said officials won’t just look at testing because there will be an expected increase in positive cases as the state tests more people. The number of people tested, he said, is not  “decisive criteria.” He said the state would instead look at hospitalization rates, whether deaths are increasing and any new hot spots. “There’s no one single factor we’ll look at. We look at all the data and consider what the data means.”
  • Asked about hair salons and barbershops that still can’t reopen, Abbott said he understands the frustration of those business owners. Abbott said they have explored strategies, including having just one customer come in at a time. “The goal is just to find safe ways in which people can work in close contact with customers while preventing the spread of COVID-19. We think we have some potential solutions, let us continue to work on it.”
  • Asked whether this new phase of reopening would include more monitoring of African-American communities, which have been hit disproportionately hard by the virus around the U.S., Abbott said he is evaluating that and “looking forward to working with legislators on trying to formulate strategies that will help us be able to track and monitor and respond.”
  • On whether Texans should wear masks, Abbott said his report recommends that everyone wears face coverings but that no jurisdiction can impose a penalty for not doing so. He said his executive order supersedes any local orders, including those that impose fines for not wearing a mask.
  • Asked about polling that shows favorability toward stay-at-home orders, Abbott said the goal was to find strategies that would ensure safety and allow businesses to open up as much as possible. “I know there are people who are still concerned about this. There is no requirement that those people leave their home. If you want to stay at home, continue to stay at home.”
  • Asked about enforcing occupancy levels under the first phase of his plan, Abbott said $1,000 fines and 180 days in jail applies to violating his executive orders. He said primary enforcement would happen at the local and regulatory levels.
  • With summer approaching, Abbott said his medical team is still working on finding ways for kids to be able to attend summer camps safely. He did not say when a decision or guidance on summer camps might come.
  • Abbott said libraries and museums can reopen under the same 25% occupancy guidelines as businesses, but that interactive exhibits must remain closed. He said the state will work to open its libraries on May 1 or soon after.

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