Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday announced that most businesses in most locales around the state can soon serve more customers at the same time.
The plan to relax COVID-19 restrictions was met with skepticism by the top elected official in Houston, which approached a grim pandemic-related milestone around the same time Abbott made his announcement.
Mayor Sylvester Turner reported 267 new cases among Houstonians and seven more coronavirus-related deaths – taking the city’s fatality total to 998 – and expressed reservation about further reopening the state. Abbott said most business in all but three regions of Texas can expand to 75 percent occupancy starting Monday, while hospitals can immediately resume elective medical procedures and nursing homes can start allowing visitors on Sept. 24.
“That is a little bit more aggressive than I would prefer,” Turner said. “The state has taken an approach that comes with high risks.”
Abbott said the expanded reopening will apply to all restaurants, retail stores, office buildings, maintenance facilities, museums, libraries and exercise gyms, which currently can operate of 50 percent of their building occupancies. He said bars will continue to remain closed to customers but added, “We are focused on finding ways to get them open.”
Abbott cited a steady decline in the rate of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations during the last two months as his reason for loosening restrictions in most areas of the state, with Laredo, Victoria and the Rio Grande Valley being the exceptions. And he pointed to hospitalizations as his key metric, saying regions where COVID-19 patients account for less than 15 percent of the total patient count, for a period of at least seven consecutive days, can take advantage of the increased reopening.
Those regions include the most populous metropolitan areas in Texas, including Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso.
As of Thursday, according to the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council, COVID-19 patients accounted for 4.9 percent of the total hospital patients in Harris County. Houston and Harris County have had a total of 121,628 cases of COVID-19, with the disease having caused at least 1,635 deaths and 103,901 patients having recovered.
“We continue keeping close track of the numbers in Harris County and are consulting with public health experts on the county’s guidance for the community,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a statement. “In the meantime, we are encouraged that Governor Abbott is adhering to a numbers-based threshold to guide his decision-making … and that he has agreed to provide certain jurisdictions carve outs.”
Turner said he worries that Houstonians and others around the state will take the expanded reopening as a sign that COVID-19 is no longer a threat or less of a threat than it has been since first appearing in the region in March. He described the situation as similar to the one in late April and early May, when Abbott reopened the state amidst a decline in case numbers and then they skyrocketed in June and July, forcing the governor to tighten some of the existing restrictions.
“We don’t want this to be a déjà vu,” Turner said.
Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department said the hospitalization metric – which Abbott called the most important and the most accurate on a daily basis – is problematic because there is a period of days or weeks in between the time someone is infected with the virus and they become ill enough to require hospitalization.
“It’s a late indicator of what the virus is doing in your community,” Persse said. “By the time people get sick and the percentage of hospitalizations goes up, that’s a pretty late indicator.”
Further complicating the issue is the fact school has already started, with some campuses already allowing students to gather on campus and others set to do so in the coming weeks. High school and college sporting events also have begun to take place across the state.
Flu season also is approaching.
Abbott said it remains important for individuals to wear masks when around others, stay at least 6 feet apart and practice good hygiene, such as frequently washing hands when in public.
“These practices are particularly important now that students are returning to schools and colleges, now that fans are returning to sporting events, now that flu season is upon us,” Abbott said. “Personal vigilance is the best way to keep down the number of COVID-19 cases, the number of hospitalizations and the number of fatalities.
“Without a vaccine available, containing COVID-19 is a challenge,” Abbott added. “But Texans have already showed that Texans are up to that challenge.”