Let the experiment begin. Gov. Greg Abbott announced today that he will allow the state’s stay-at-home order to expire on April 30, freeing the way for restaurants, malls, museums, movie theaters, and retail stores to open so long as they do not let in more than 25 percent of their capacity.
The move is the first of a staged phasing of openings that the governor would like to roll out every few weeks. He said he would use total positive cases of COVID-19, hospitalizations, hospital capacity, deaths, and hotspots to determine whether more businesses can open. Abbott said he would like to reopen bars, hair salons, barber shops, and gyms and jump capacity to 50 percent by May 18. He didn’t spend much time on how that capacity rule will be enforced but said it’s punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to 180 days in jail.
“Millions of Texans have sacrificed their livelihoods as well as so many of their cherished moments as an effort to protect the health and safety of our fellow Texans,” Abbott said. “Every life lost is tragic, but the fact is the tragedies in Texas have been far fewer than most states.”
He said he made his decision based on opinions from the state’s top doctors assigned to his so-called “strike force.” Hovering over him were unemployment filings from 1.9 million Texans that have paid out $2 billion since this started. The phases come with a revamped strategy for contact tracing, the act of investigating who a COVID-19 patient came into contact with.
Testing capacity remains a concern, but Abbott downplayed it, saying private labs will have given the state the ability to test more than 25,000 per day by next month. That number seems low. Dr. Mark McClellan, director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, is one of the governor’s medical advisors. He told the Dallas Morning News on Sunday that testing and tracing capacity was “a very much intense work in progress right now.” Even the lowest estimates in that story call for 40,000 daily tests in Texas. The highest go up to 350,000.
“You could argue that government responsibilities are to ensure adequacy of testing. And not just adequacy of testing but adequacy of support for public health to trace and monitor disease activity in the community, viral activity in the community,” Dr. Mark Casanova, the head of the Dallas County Medical Society, told me after Abbott’s announcement. “We need to be monitoring for the earliest signs.”
That will be key for reopening the economy, according to public health experts. If someone may have been exposed, you need to test them. You need to test their colleagues and family members and on down the list of people they came into contact with. Without that robust capability, reopening businesses creates risk. Imagine one of these people sitting at a Colleyville restaurant patio being an asymptomatic carrier.
So far, the state has tested 290,517 people. Per capita, we have tested 952 people per 100,000 population. That’s the fourth-worst in the nation, ahead of only Virginia (946), Kansas (900), and Arizona (890). Georgia has a similarly low per capita rate of testing (1,161 per) and its governor was even more aggressive than Abbott in that state’s reopening.
There are 25,297 cases in Texas and 663 people have died. About 1,563 are currently hospitalized. The contact tracing will add another 1,000 tracers by April 27 and 4,000 by May 11. To come will also be an application for public health officials and a statewide call center.
“It’s hard to get rid of this virus because it is so contagious, so we’re not just going to open up and hope for the best,” Abbott said. “Instead, we will put measures in place that keep businesses open while also containing the virus to keep Texans safe.”
Casanova said he thinks we’re “hedging some bets” with the decision.
“You need to have a statistically comfortable analysis, like ‘x’ number of individuals out of 100 or 1,000 is our comfort level. If we can achieve that and have the ability to readily test people who have been exposed directly or have any level of infection, then we can do this,” he said. “We did it right and got it right going into this and this was on the collective ‘us’ as the citizens of North Texas. If we can keep that in mind we have the potential to get it right on the back end.”
Businesses don’t have to open, but the governor made sure to mention that his rule supersedes any local prohibitions that are in conflict. Dallas County remains under a stay-at-home order through May 15. Here’s more on the specifics of the governor’s order.