Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced on Thursday that beginning Monday, most businesses already open in Houston and other parts of Texas where COVID-19 hospitalizations have steadily fallen will be able to expand their operating capacity from 50 percent to 75 percent.
Bars will remain closed for now, Abbott said, because they are still "nationally recognized as COVID-spreading locations," and he provided no timeline for when they might be able to reopen.
Citing significant declines in hospitalizations due to COVID-19 across much of the state in recent months, Abbott said in a Thursday press conference that going forward, state business reopenings will be tied to the percentage of hospital patients that have COVID-19 in each of the state's 22 hospital regions as defined by the Texas Department of State Health Services.
In the greater Houston area and all other regions that have recorded less than 15 percent COVID-19 hospitalizations for at least seven consecutive days, all retail stores, restaurants, office buildings, manufacturing businesses, museums, libraries and gyms will be allowed to expand their operating capacity from 50 percent to 75 percent as of Monday, Abbot said.
If COVID-19 hospitalizations increase to above 15 percent in any of the DSHS-defined hospital regions and stay at that heightened level for seven consecutive days, “reevaluation will be needed,” said Abbott.
There are only three regions of the state that haven’t hit these COVID-19 hospitalization thresholds: Laredo, Victoria and the Rio Grande Valley. In those areas, no additional reopenings will happen until COVID-19 hospitalizations fall below 15 percent for at least seven days, Abbott said.
“Moving forward, we will continue to consider all of the relevant factors for additional business openings, or [if] course correction is needed, but we will rely most heavily on hospitalizations of COVID patients,” Abbott said, signalling the state’s shift away from COVID-19 test positivity rate as the main metric that guided the first round of state business reopenings in May.
Data reporting lags and test processing issues have caused public health experts to call into question the validity of statewide test positivity rates as the metric of choice, and Abbott said hospitalizations provide a more reliable measure of the spread of COVID-19 in a given region.
Abbott also announced that “effective immediately,” all hospitals in the regions where business reopenings have been approved “can return to ordinary elective surgical procedures,” reversing the limits on non-essential surgeries he put in place earlier this summer.
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All nursing home facilities, assisted living centers, state-supported living centers and other long term care facilities in those regions where COVID-19 hospitalizations have fallen will also be allowed to reopen for visitation as of next Thursday. “They must however comply with certain health protocols, and there must be no COVID outbreaks at those facilities,” Abbott said.
In a press release sent after his announcement, Abbott’s office clarified that residents at these facilities, or resident’s legal representative, can designate “up to two essential family caregivers” that will then be provided training on how to “safely go inside a facility for a scheduled visit, including in the resident’s room.” Facilities will be required to train these caregivers on proper use of personal protective equipment, which must be worn at all times during visits. Caregivers also have to test negative for COVID-19 within the previous 14 days before their first visit.
Abbott’s decision to shift to regional hospitalization rates as the barometer for reopening businesses seems to reflect an ideological shift away from statewide, one-size-fits-all orders and toward a more targeted reopening strategy.
“The severity of COVID in one region of Texas should not dictate the business practices in some distant region of the state,” Abbott said.