Texas governor begins easing restrictions to reopen economy

T.W. Browne Middle School food service employee Pamela Harrington, center, greets a family line up in their vehicle waiting to receive food being distributed to the Dallas Independent School District families in Dallas, Thursday, April 16, 2020. Harrington was one of six DISD food service employees featured on the cover of Time, the magazine, honoring their efforts to feed families in need during this COVID-19 crisis.(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

By PAUL J. WEBER and JIM VERTUNO Associated Press

AUSTIN (AP) — Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday began a slow reopening of Texas with orders that allow retail shops to sell items curbside, lets visitors return to state parks and puts doctors back in operating rooms after they were banned for weeks from performing nonessential surgeries.

The eased restrictions in Texas, which Abbott said will be phased in starting next week, came a day after President Donald Trump gave governors a road map for recovering from the economic pain of the coronavirus pandemic. Abbott said he would announce another phase of reopening on April 27 but did not immediately lay out criteria or what kind of businesses would be allowed to resume.

Universities and schools for more than 5 million Texas public school students, however, won’t reopen before summer, and Abbott said broader stay-at-home orders designed to increase social distancing remain in effect through the end of the month.

“Step by step, we will open up Texas,” Abbott said during a televised announcement from the Texas Capitol.

At least 17,300 people in Texas have tested positive for the virus, and more than 400 have died. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

Testing in Texas has lagged near the bottom in the U.S. Abbott said a core component of gradually lifting restrictions would be increased testing but did not commit to a number or threshold, adding that by “late April early May” the state would have additional testing capacity, bolstered by the private sector.

The White House guidelines recommend that states pass checkpoints that look at new cases, testing and surveillance data over the prior 14 days before advancing from one phase to another.

Governors of both parties have made clear they will move at their own pace.

Abbott is facing sharpened political attacks from both sides of the aisle. Conservatives are lining up behind Trump and pressuring Abbott to unleash businesses as Texas, one of the largest economies in the world, is struggling to handle a crush of more than 1 million people who have filed for unemployment since the crisis began. Democrats, who have a shot at retaking the the Texas House in November for the first time in 20 years, are ratcheting up their criticism of Texas’ testing capacity and a stretched supply of protective equipment for medical workers.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has begun wearing a mask during his daily televised news briefings, is still calling for more testing and said this week that talk of reopening the nation’s fourth-largest city was premature.

“It’s pretty clear from our city that they don’t believe it’s the time to open up businesses, because not enough testing has been done to know who’s vulnerable,” said Democrat state Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston lawmaker. “They would prefer that we wait until we have a little more information before the business goes back to where it normally.”

Only recent have some Texas cities rolled out programs for anyone to get tested, regardless of whether they are symptomatic. In Austin, public health officials on Friday announced a plan to boost testing by as much as 2,000 per week with an online application that allows people to bypass a referral from a doctor.

The AP is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering. AP is neither privately owned nor government-funded; instead, as a not-for-profit news cooperative owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members, it can maintain its single-minded focus on newsgathering and its commitment to the highest standards of objective, accurate journalism.