Social distancing restrictions are being eased across Texas as the number of COVID-19 cases appears to level off in communities such as Houston.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that he will allow his statewide stay-at-home order to expire as scheduled on Thursday. Beginning Friday, the governor said he’s allowing businesses such as restaurants, movie theaters and museums to reopen their doors to customers but with limited capacities.
As part of Phase 1 of his plan to reopen the state and boost its struggling economy, Abbott said retail stores, malls and libraries also will be allowed to reopen Friday as long as they limit building occupancy to no more than 25 percent. Abbott said sole proprietors will be allowed to resume operations under his executive order, and citizens can play outdoor sports such as golf and tennis as long as the activities include no more than four people.
“We’ll open in a way that uses safer guidelines for businesses, for employees as well as for their customers,” Abbott said. “We’re not just going to open up and hope for the best.”
Abbott said all of his executive orders related to COVID-19 carry penalties including a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 180 days in jail. He also said they supersede local orders, such as those made by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
Turner said the stay-at-home order that has been in place in Harris County since March 24 has helped to minimize the impact of the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, which has infected at least 5,800 people and caused at least 98 deaths in Houston and Harris County. On a day when he announced 74 new cases and four additional deaths among city residents, Turner cautioned that the region could see a spike in cases under less-stringent restrictions.
“It’s my hope that opening up like (Abbott) is proposing will work,” Turner said. “The virus is still here.”
Abbott said his plan to reopen is being guided by data and advice from doctors and will be reevaluated in the coming weeks, at which point he could enter Phase 2 of his plan by allowing more businesses to open. If that happens, and COVID-19 remains contained, Abbott said the businesses that reopen Friday could increase to 50 percent occupancy later in May.
Abbott said gyms, salons, barbershops and bars will remain closed.
For more information about the governor’s plan, visit gov.texas.gov/opentexas.
Businesses that are allowed to reopen are not required to do so, according to Abbott. He also said the state will not require its citizens to wear face coverings while in public, although that is a requirement in the state parks that reopened Monday.
As Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo pointed out later Monday, businesses could require their customers to wear masks on their properties and customers who do not comply could be subject to arrest for criminal trespassing.
Per his order, Abbott said “no jurisdiction can impose any type of penalty or fine for not wearing a mask.” Hidalgo issued an order that went into effect Monday requiring all citizens age 10 and older to wear face coverings when in public, with the possibility of a $1,000 fine for violations.
Acevedo had previously said the Houston Police Department would not issue citations to residents not wearing masks and would instead provide one. Hidalgo said the purpose of tying a potential fine to her order was not to seek out violators and issue citations but to “send the signal that this is not optional.”
According to public health officials, COVID-19 is commonly spread by asymptomatic carriers, and wearing masks can prevent infection.
“This is not a matter of convenience,” Hidalgo said. “This is a matter of life or death for people.”