Texas reopening despite rise in virus cases

Restaurants in Texas have been serving diners for more than two weeks, though at just 25 percent of capacity, and bars and many other businesses will open their doors this week.

But some worry that the Lone Star State is playing with fire, given the steady rise in coronavirus cases.

Republican governor Greg Abbott lifted stay-at-home orders on May 1 and began a phased reopening, putting him at odds with the Democratic mayors of some of the state's largest cities.

"Today, tomorrow, and every day going forward is one step closer to medical discoveries that can treat and protect people from COVID-19," Abbott said Monday in announcing the second phase of his reopening plan.

"But until that day comes, our focus is keeping Texans safe while restoring their ability to get back to work, open their businesses, pay their bills, and put food on their tables."

Restaurants were allowed to reopen at 25 percent capacity on May 1 along with non-essential retail stores, movie theaters, museums and libraries.

Barber shops, nail salons and tanning salons were given the green light to open a week later as long as they enforced social distancing.

On Friday, restaurants will be allowed to increase to 50 percent capacity, and bars, craft breweries and wine tasting rooms can open for business at 25 percent capacity.

So can bowling alleys, bingo halls and skating rinks.

The reopening comes despite a steady rise in the number of coronavirus cases in Texas.

A total of 49,215 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Texas and there have been 1,352 deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

On Saturday, the state reported 1,801 new cases, a one-day high since the pandemic began, many of them stemming from an outbreak at a meat-packing plant in Amarillo in the northern panhandle.

Abbott delayed the reopening measures for a week in Amarillo, El Paso and several other areas but is pushing ahead elsewhere in the sprawling southern state with a population of nearly 30 million.

- 'Unacceptable' -

More than 2.5 million Texans have filed for unemployment since March 14, and Abbott has cited the economic carnage in pushing for a speedy reopening of the state.

"Unemployment numbers are too high and unacceptable," the governor said.

"What we intend to do to lower the unemployment rate even more is to continue this process of opening up Texas," he said. "The best thing that we can do is to continue to open up."

Anna Tauzin, an executive with the Texas Restaurant Association, welcomed the governor's move to increase restaurant capacity, but warned that it may not be enough to save many establishments.

"It wasn't sustainable at 25 percent," Tauzin said. "It's not sustainable at 50. It's not at 75.

"Even if we were going to go back to 100 percent right now, there's still a lot of issues," including consumer confidence, she said.

"Some guests are not comfortable going out right now," Tauzin said. "A lot of people have lost their jobs and so don't have that disposable income that they had before."

"There's a great number of restaurants, especially independent restaurants, that will not survive."

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Abbott's reopening plan, while a "popular thing," may be premature.

"We must continue to remain vigilant even as restrictions are being lifted," Turner said.

"I probably would choose a different pace than what (Abbott) has chosen," the Houston mayor said. "Now, my only hope and prayer is that several weeks from now we are not going to see a spike occur."

Pete Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said an increase in the number of virus cases was all but certain.

"The big question is how serious an increase we can expect," Hotez said. "My worry is that potentially we could see a big surge in Texas, including Houston, starting later in the summer.

"Metrics show that we should not relax social distancing until June," he said.

"But we already opened it up in May so that's a potential concern, that we could lose ground."

Hotez said the groundwork had not been laid for a reopening of the state.

"We do not have the preparation at the public health level," he said. "We do not have adequate testing in the workplace. We do not have an adequate level of contact tracers."