Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a wide-ranging executive order Friday that aims to reopen businesses across the state as its communities, including Houston, continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Starting next Friday, April 24, Abbott said retailers in Texas will be allowed to operate with to-go services, much like restaurants have been doing for the last month in Houston and Harris County. The governor also said he wants doctors and hospitals, which have focused the majority of their resources to treating COVID-19 patients, to soon resume elective procedures since Texas hospitals have available bed capacity.
Abbott said state parks, which have been closed, will reopen Monday, April 20. The governor also announced that all schools in Texas will remain closed for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year, which was the only part of his executive order not aimed at loosening the restrictions brought on by the pandemic.
“Opening Texas must occur in stages,” Abbott said. “We must be guided by data and by doctors. We must put health and safety first.”
Abbott also said he has put together a “strike force” to provide guidance on the reopening of the state. The group includes members of his cabinet as well as business and community leaders from around the state, such as Houston furniture mogul Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale and Houston Rockets owner and restaurateur Tilman Fertitta.
Abbott said he will provide more details about his plan, along with revisions, next Friday, April 27. He said he is considering the “elimination of the stay-at-home policy” he has implemented through April 30.
Houston and Harris County, where a total of more than 4,400 cases of COVID-19 and 67 related deaths have been reported by local officials, is under a stay-at-home, work safe order through April 30. Only essential business are permitted to operate during the order, and all citizens are required to maintain at least 6 feet of separation between themselves and people who are not part of their household.
A few hours after Abbott issued his executive order, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city had identified 114 new cases of COVID-19, the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, among city residents. Turner also announced two more COVID-19 deaths, bringing the city’s total to 31.
While acknowledging that Abbott’s authority trumps his own, Turner said the loosening of restrictions must coincide with more robust testing for COVID-19. Abbott said testing throughout the state will soon increase, with help from the private sector, but did not provide more details.
“All of those sacrifices that you have made, they are working,” Turner said, addressing Houstonians. “If we take our foot off the brake, we can easily start moving back in the other direction.”
At least 17,000 Texans have been infected by COVID-19, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, while there have been 428 deaths in the state.
Abbott said safety guidelines for retail businesses that can reopen next week are available at dshs.texas.gov/coronavirus. The protocols include screening employees for illness when they report to work, wearing face coverings and adhering to social distancing and sanitation guidelines.
When state parks reopen, Abbott said all visitors must practice social distancing and cover their faces.
Houston’s parks remain open, but Turner said the city will limit access to parking lots from Friday night through Monday morning in an attempt to promote social distancing and encouraging walking to its parks.
“It’s really important that we not let our guard down,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said. “We still have to focus on the social distancing issues. We have to respect each other as we have. We have to be safe first.”