By HARRIET RAMOS and MONICA FIGUEROA
Texas schools are closed for the rest of the school year, but state parks will re-open April 20, restrictions on some elective surgeries will be lifted on April 22 and retail businesses can re-open April 24 on a pick-up or delivery basis.
At Friday’s news conference, Gov. Greg Abbott announced his plan to gradually reopen the state of Texas and the strike force, composed of medical advisors and business leaders, who will lead the effort.
“Obviously, not all businesses can open all at once,” he said. “First will be openings … that include activities that should pose minimal or no threat to expanding COVID-19.”
Abbott said the decision to keep schools closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year was based on advice from medical professionals and includes all public and private schools as well as colleges and universities. Teachers are allowed on campus to provide video instruction for their students or to clean out their classrooms.
The Dallas County Community College District has already announced it will continue in an online-only format through Maymester and summer courses.
Additional openings will be announced on April 27 and more openings will follow in May if infection rates are in decline and if there are sufficient testing and hospital capacity to contain a COVID-19 outbreak. He said the goal is to get Texans back to work without compromising their safety.
Abbott said the retail sector is included in the first wave of openings because of the importance it plays in Texas’ economy and the number of jobs it creates. He added that stores would have to operate on a “retail-to-go” basis and abide by certain guidelines from the Texas Department of State Health Services to minimize COVID-19 exposure.
Even though state parks will be open for business, he added that visitors will have to wear face coverings, follow social distancing guidelines and not congregate in groups of more than five.
The loosening of restrictions on non-essential medical procedures will give doctors more flexibility in treating medical conditions and get doctors and nurses back to work, Abbott said.
“It must be done in ways to ensure that we will be able to treat COVID-19 patients,” he said. “Adequate supplies of hospital beds and PPE must be maintained to ensure that all COVID-19 needs are met.”
Abbott said Texas currently has plenty of hospital space and a solid supply line of personal protective equipment.
The City of Dallas reported 2,888 out of 5,771 hospital beds were being occupied on April 13. The information came from 25 hospitals.
The Medical City Healthcare website states that the facilities do have protective equipment, but that it’s looking to acquire more and will reuse some when necessary.
Abbott said it would be up for the courts to decide whether abortions would be allowed continue under the new orders. For the past few weeks, Attorney General Ken Paxton has been in a legal dispute with abortion clinics, which were initially told they could not perform procedures when Abbott postponed elective surgeries on March 22.
According to Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services and member of Abbott’s strike force, there is evidence the progression of COVID-19 is slowing.
“We should take great satisfaction and be very encouraged by the progress that we’ve made so far,” he said. “COVID-19 did not explode; COVID-19 did not meet the worst predictions that were out there.”
As of April 17, there were a total of 18,074 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas and 456 deaths according to Johns Hopkins University. On March 31 the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicted the state death toll would exceed 6,000 by July.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said it is important that Texans not let their guard down and continue practicing social distancing and other safety measures.
“We have to respect each other as we have and we have to be safe first,” he said. “It is not the end of the beginning, but we are beginning to move to that point, and it will depend on all of us working together.”
— Skye Seipp contributed to this report