Bars can reopen Friday at 25 percent capacity, along with bowling alleys and zoos and other more esoteric entertainment options, like natural caverns and bingo halls. Restaurants can jump their capacity to 50 percent. Childcare programs can open immediately. Summer camps can start June 1.
This is the new guidance for the state of Texas, as announced by Gov. Greg Abbott Monday afternoon, the day he allowed gyms and some offices to reopen at 25 percent their maximum occupancy. In his announcement, Abbott said we would have to “coexist with COVID-19 as safely as possible.” (Bars, among other businesses, should only serve patrons who are seated, close bar tops, keep pathways open, and make parties stay 6 feet away from others.)
Let’s zoom into Dallas. Our new normal daily COVID-19 caseload appears to be in the mid to low 200s. For now, at least. Our total cases stand at 7,679 and 177 people have died, while 62 percent of our hospital beds and 67 percent of our ICU beds are occupied. (That’s obviously not just COVID-19 patients, and there is significant variability between hospitals.) Experts start to get nervous when that percentage crests 70, but we’ve been bouncing around the mid-60s for weeks now.
Things feel stable. A week ago, Judge Clay Jenkins hesitantly noted that it appeared we’d reached a plateau of sorts, and last week’s average daily cases dropped from 246 to 233. We had fewer deaths (27) in a week than we’ve seen since the week of April 19.
There seem to be two lines of thinking on this: we’ve flattened the curve and the sky-is-falling modeling was wrong, or we were successful in staying away from others and should continue to do so. Scientists and public health officials lean toward the second view. We wouldn’t have a plateau without our individual efforts and our stay-at-home edicts. There is also uncertainty about the future. It appears the state of Texas is including antibody tests into its total cases, according to reporting by the Texas Observer. If so, that skews the information that’s being used to determine which sectors of the economy should be reopened and when.
As Jenkins noted yesterday, “We have not yet seen the impact of reopening the economy during a sharp increase rather than waiting for a 14-day decline. Those numbers will begin to manifest themselves by the end of the month. Hopefully, things will go well, and whether they do is largely up to you.”
Yet two studies released last week were startling. The first, from UT Southwestern, said our current level of social distancing will result in 800 daily new cases by July. If we tighten the rules a bit, we’ll continue along our current trajectory of a few hundred daily cases. The other study was national, from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Its most likely future scenario predicts a spike in cases in the winter or fall and smaller waves from there. Mitigation measures will come with those ebbs and flows.
The county now has an easy-to-read, color coded guidance that tells you what is safe to do. (Right now we’re in red, ‘stay home, stay safe’ territory.) Even if you’re skeptical of the modeling and the numbers, the studies coalesce around a very simple concept: this is a highly contagious disease, and staying away from others is the best way to prevent the worst. While our hospital bed occupancy appears stable, a spike in cases could be catastrophic. So when you’re out in public, wear a mask. Trail people by 6 feet. This should be gospel by now.
According to Johns Hopkins, Dallas County has the 40th highest total caseload in the country. Zoom into the past seven days, and we added more cases than all but nine other counties in America. And according to the New York Times, Texas is one of only five states where cases are increasing. The vast majority (31) are adding about the same number of cases every day.
This is the information you should take with you as you make your decisions. Not every week will bring Big News, but it will require you to make judgment calls based on what’s in front of you. And now you have more choices about what you can and cannot do.