April 27, 2020

Reboot Wrinkles

GOP Governor Bringing Texas Back to Life in Stages with Occupancy Caps
that Could Prompt Some First-Round Businesses to Wait for Second Phase

MIKE HAILEY

Movie theaters that reopen in the largest Texas cities on Friday won't have any way to tell how many tickets they've sold to people who don't know that they're infected with the coronavirus and could spreading it to others in the audience because they're not wearing masks that will no longer be required in public places.

But some of the companies that bring Hollywood to the Lone Star State on the big screen might simply decide to remain shuttered for the time being because they'd be losing money with only one of every four seats filled for almost three weeks or more in the first phase of the new Texas reopening plan.

The theater operators here aren't the only Texas business people who find themselves facing unprecedented dilemmas that they only have a few days to deliberate as the ostensible winners in the economic restart plan that Governor Greg Abbott announced on Monday.

The Republican governor gave restaurants, retailers, malls and the movie houses permission to open back up five days from now after being shut down for a month or more. But there's a catch that could be costly with a 25 percent occupancy cap on the businesses that are getting a head start on the return of the Texas economy from the dead with the stairstep plan that Abbott is putting in motion this weekend.

The good news for the designated beneficiaries in phase one of the methodical back-to-business strategy is that they might get the go-ahead for operations at 50 percent capacity if and when the second stage of the Abbott plan begins on May 18. The private sector's other members like gyms, hair salons, bars and tatoo shops won't be allowed to reopen until part two that's could be delayed until the COVID-19 rates are on the decline in Texas where they've been going up every day since virus made its debut here almost two months ago.

But Abbott appears determined to stay the course that he's followed since the outset of the outbreak in the face of intense heat from the hard right and no shortage of criticism from Democrats as well.

The Abbott reopening plan sparked immediate protests from Democrats who portrayed it as a hurry-up approach designed to appease big business at the expense of the public health and workers who haven't lost their jobs in the pandemic.

State Rep. Chris Turner - a Grand Prairie lawmaker who chairs the House Democratic Caucus - suggested that the Abbott plan had been based more on wishful thinking than scientific data. Turner warned that the governor's reopening timetable had substantial potential to backfire without sufficient testing in a state that's ranked near the bottom in containment strategy preparedness.

San Antonio Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones - the party's nominee in an open congressional race that she'll be favored to win this fall - echoed Turner's concerns.

"Public officials must make their decisions based on evidence and facts," Ortiz Jones said. "But here in Texas, our leaders are presenting a false choice between lives and livelihoods — as testing still falls dramatically short of where it should be 54 days and over 25,000 cases after our state’s first confirmed case."

Virus trackers at the University of Washington's Health Metric and Evaluation Institute appear to agree with June 8 as the earliest date that scientists there think Texas will be in position to start easing social distancing mandates with an effective containment strategy that revolves on testing, contact tracing and other elements.

The governor unveiled the plan a week after the appointment of a strike force that includes corporate executives, political leaders and medical professionals. But Abbott insisted that the timeline reflects the consensus views of experts in medicine and science with the health and safety of individual Texans as the overriding priority.

Abbott can expect another round of howling from hardline conservatives who've been demanding an immediate cancellation of restrictions that he imposed statewide early this month. While Abbott's critics on the right appeared to get a concession with his decision not to extend a stay-at-home order that expires Thursday, the plans falls far short of the all-encompassing end to lockdowns that have drawn the wrath of conservatives.

CONSIDER THE SOURCE

Mike Hailey presents state politics with a personal touch. He's the only Texas Capitol journalist who's been to the dark side and back - having worked for two major newspaper bureaus before signing on as press secretary for Bob Bullock - the most powerful and legendary political leader of his time in the state. Hailey's Comment, which is published in Capitol Inside on a regular basis, is a direct reflection of that experience.

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