May 3, 2020
Reopening Had Mirage as Catalyst with Count
Up Every Day Since Order that Ended Lockdown
A decline in rates that had been the impetus for the Texas reopening this weekend has turned out to be an illusion with the number of coronavirus cases that have been confirmed here going up five days in a row since Governor Greg Abbott started loosening restrictions early this week.
The Department of State Health Services reported that 1,293 cases had been confirmed during a 24-hour period that ended on Saturday - the second highest amount in a single day since the Texas record of 1,441 was set three weeks ago.
The daily count could be on track for a sixth consecutive increase with 618 new cases since the running Texas tally hit 31,140 midway through the day. Forty people have died in Texas from COVID-19 infections in the past 36 hours based on data compiled by the state agency and Johns Hopkins University.
Abbott had been suggesting for a couple of weeks that the outbreak that had reached a peak in Texas when he issued an order on Monday that overturned local mask mandates in the state's largest cities and cancelled a stay-at-home order that he'd had in effect for more than four weeks.
But the Republican governor only allowed a selected group of businesses to resume operations with strict conditions when the initial phase of an economic restart kicked off on Friday. The reopening has fallen far short of grand - however - with only a smattering of movie theaters taking Abbott up on the invitation to reopen and a majority of restaurants that also had a green light deciding to keep their doors closed to dining on their premises.
Malls across the state have been open for two days with a tiny fraction of the shopping traffic they normally have on slow days. The Barton Creek Square mall in Austin opened its doors again with an extensive protocol for retailers and customers shut down today two hours earlier than normal and the parking lot had been deserted long before the sun went down.
While all of the chain theaters are passing on the opportunity to start showing films again at a maximum capacity of 25 percent in line with Abbott's most recent directive, Evo Entertainment plans to open theaters between San Antonio and Austin on Monday with a screening process that will could airports security seem lax. Evo will require moviegoers to answer questions about possible symptoms that they or other members of their households have been experiencing before they file through an infrared scanner that will gauge their body temperature.
Abbott has appeared to be trying to find a middle ground between conservatives who are demanding an immediate end to lockdowns and Democrats who warn that the state should go slower until testing shortages have been resolved.
Texas has had a lower number of coronavirus fatalities per capita than the other major states and one of the lowest rates of confirmed cases as well. But the statistics are starting to appear misleading as the attention shifts from social distancing and lockdowns to testing.
A Capitol Inside analysis of the testing rates in the biggest states and the three dozen largest counties in Texas suggests that the COVID-19 rates would be about the same if the level of tests had been as well.
The coronavirus appeared to be more arbitrary and unpredictable in the first month of the surge in Texas - hitting places like Lubbock and Galveston and dots on the map like Cactus, Clarendon and Shelbyville harder than the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas and other large cities where the lion's share of the state's residents are based.
The number of coronavirus cases has been disproportionately higher in places like Moore and Shelby counties where outbreaks erupted at major meat packing plants that weren't prepared for the onslaught or capable of spacing workers farther apart than normal on assembly lines. Smaller Texas counties with high death tolls recorded a high percentage of those at nursing homes that hadn't taken sufficient cautions in advance and were unable to get a sufficient number of testing kits.
But it's evident now that most of the cities and counties that have recorded the most coronavirus infections have been doing so simply because they'd been testing more people for the disease than the areas that had appeared to be getting off easier based on the rates.
Fort Bend County has been the showcase for coronavirus testing in Texas with a per-capita rate that's more than twice as high as it's been statewide and in Harris and Dallas counties as well. The suburban county on the outskirts of the Houston area has been footing the bill for COVID-19 tests that are free and have been available for more than two weeks to any resident who wants to get one even if they haven't had any symptoms that have been a prerequisite in most other places. All that's required for a test there is an appointment and a driver's license or some other form of official identification with a photo and Fort Bend address.
Fort Been has conducted more coronavirus tests than all of the state's other 253 counties with the exceptions of the two largest - Harris and Dallas. Fort Bend ranks 10th among Texas counties in size with a population that's one-third white, one-quarter Hispanic and more than 20 percent Asian.
One of the Asian-Americans who lives in Fort Bend is County Judge KP George - a Sugar Land Democrat who grew up in a tiny village in India and was broke when he moved to the United States 27 years ago. George unseated a longtime Republican incumbent in 2018 when Democrats won every race at the county level that had a Democratic nominee on the ballot.
Testing for the virus hasn't prevented it in Fort Bend County, which ranks sixth in the state in the number of cases per capita. But the numbers are deceiving with the county's big lead in testing making it appear like the spread has been worse there than it actually has been.
While George declined to impose a mask order like neighboring Harris County had in place for a couple of weeks, the emphasis on testing will presumably keep the future count down as a major key to a successful containment strategy.
Texas currently ranks 46th in coronavirus tests up to now with an average 1,139 for every 100,000 people here. New York - the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S. - is the only one of the 10 largest states with a higher testing rate than Fort Bend County. Ohio is the only state that's ranked among the top 10 with a lower per-capita testing rate than Texas.