Malls, movie theaters, restaurants and other retailers will be able to reopen Friday in Texas after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order allowing his stay-at-home order to expire as scheduled this week.
"Now, it's time to set a new course — a course that responsibly opens up business in Texas," Abbott said at a Monday press conference announcing the order. "Just as we united as one state to slow COVID-19, we must also come together to begin rebuilding the lives and the livelihoods of our fellow Texans."
The governor claimed that the stay-at-home order, which was announced March 31 and did not cover the entire month, "has done its job to slow the growth of COVID-19."
The state will also embark on a new testing and tracing program aimed to help public health officials better locate Texans who have contracted or been exposed to the virus in hopes of containing it. A Houston Chronicle report earlier this month found that Texas ranked second-to-last in the nation in terms of testing.
Coronavirus deaths in the state climbed to 732 on Wednesday, up 189 from the previous week, according to data from the Texas State Department of Health.
Abbott's order carries several restrictions, such as mandating that businesses cap their occupancy at 25% and adhere to a litany of minimum standard health protocols established in a new Department of State Health Services report accompanying the order. Libraries and museums can also operate at 25% capacity, but hands-on exhibits will remain off limits.
Texas counties with five or fewer laboratory-confirmed cases may, on an individual basis, ratchet occupancy limits up to 50%.
Arcades, bowling alleys, gyms, massage parlors, public pools, salons and tattoo studios must wait until "Phase II," which Abbott said could arrive as early as May 18, after "two weeks of data to confirm no flare-up of COVID-19." The list appears to be a barb aimed at the widely-criticized plan from Gov. Brian Kemp, R-Ga., to reopen his state.
"We see our numbers are continuing to tick up in this state, we see that our deaths are rising," Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, said. "We have some of the highest asthma rates in the country right here in Atlanta."
Abbott may have also designed the plan to placate President Donald Trump after he publicly chastised Kemp.
The White House task force reportedly enlisted Dr. Deborah Birx — who suggested that Georgia tattoo artists could get "very creative" about plying their trade at a distance of six feet — last week in an attempt to convince Trump to withdraw initial support for Kemp's plan.
"If there's a way that people can social distance and do those things, then they can do those things," Birx said at the time. "I don't know how, but people are very creative."
The president ultimately reversed course and aired his strong disagreement with Kemp in public.
"I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities which are in violation of the phase one guidelines for the incredible people of Georgia," Trump said at a White House briefing last week, suggesting he would intervene in the event of "something totally egregious."
Abott's move was also criticized by Democrats in his own state, as well as experts. Public health experts warned that a second wave of infection was the risk of an overzealous rollout.
Manny Garcia, the executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, urged caution, telling CNN that "lives are on the line."
"If our leadership does not heed the advice of public health officials, we risk an even deeper public health and economic catastrophe," he added.
Bill Gilmer, an economist at the University of Houston, cast Abbott's order in moral terms, saying that the governor faces a choice between "the good of the majority of the population based on an improved economy versus those most damaged by letting this disease continue to spread and potentially letting the hospital system be overwhelmed."
Abbott was joined at the press conference by Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who used two separate appearances on Tucker Carlson Tonight too call for elderly Americans to sacrifice their own lives for the benefit of the economy.
The governor's office reserves the authority to override local municipalities, as well as close down Texas counties that report troubling trends in infection rates.
The Amarillo City Council met Tuesday to vote on synchronizing local guidance with the statewide order. Public health experts in the county reported that 275 residents tested positive for COVID-19 on April 20, which jumped to 587 positive tests on April 27, registering on the day Abbott signed his order an increase of 312 cases in just one week. Hospitalizations increased that week from 28 positive cases to 64.
Amarillo recorded its ninth death Friday on the day Abbott allowed Texas retailers to begin conducting no-contact business. The city council voted to abide by Abbott's order.