Abbott Flexes His Powers, Opens Some Businesses, Not Others and Kills Fines For Harris County Mask Order Violations

The man in charge of Texas.
The man in charge of Texas. Screenshot
In an address that contained more than a few surprises — he didn't open up hair salons after all — Gov. Greg Abbott Monday outlined his plan for en-energizing the Texas economy in a way that some will see as reckless and others as not enough.

When his stay-at-home executive order expires on Thursday, April 30, he will not be extending it. "That executive order has done its job to slow the spread of COVID-19 and I will let it expire as scheduled." At the same time he's not dropping all restrictions either.

Starting this Friday, May 1, all retail stores, restaurants. movie theaters and malls can reopen but must practice social distancing measures and limit themselves to no more than 25 percent of their normal occupancy. If that works and there is not a huge flare-up of coronavirus cases and deaths, then on or around May 18, the second phase of the re-opening will come into play, allowing 50 percent occupancy, he said.

"The lives saved are priceless but the price has been steep. Many have lost jobs,others have lost businesses, many are struggling to pay their bills.I want those Texans to know they are not alone in this fight. Just as we united as one state to slow COVID-19, we must also come together in rebuilding the lives and livelihoods of our fellow Texans," Abbott said. .

As he made clear once again, all of the governor's executive orders supersede any local orders. As a result, although Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo's mandatory mask order went into effect today, Abbott says there can be no fines assessed against violators.

And while Abbott insisted that everything he was doing was being done to ensure the safety of Texans while at the same time provided help to people who have lost their jobs and businesses in financial distress — it was clear in his own press conference that followed the governor's that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wasn't so sure.

click to enlarge Mayor Turner voicing concerns. - SCREENSHOT
Mayor Turner voicing concerns.

"Just a cautionary note that there is no vaccine that is available for us right now," Turner said. The social distancing and stay-at-home measures have been working, along with cancelling mega conferences during March and April, "but the virus is still here."

In fact, the mayor reported four more deaths today, bringing the total in the city of Houston to 42 COVID-19 related deaths as well as 74 new cases. A few moments later, growing emotional, the mayor held up the front page of the Houston Chronicle with its lead headline "Local cases more prevalent in at-risk neighborhoods," Saying that he grew up in one of those neighborhoods, Turner said that the main question on the minds of people there isn't jobs but is "Mayor, Tell me what you are going to to to keep us safe."

Besides hair and nail salons, Abbott said on the advice of medical experts he was also not allowing bars and gyms to open at this time. The difference in the case of hair and nail salons, he said, was that even if the number of clientele was restricted, the physical closeness between customers and the stylists was too concerning.

Abbott did set up a proviso that Texas counties with fewer than five active COVID-19 cases, could on May 1 resume business with 50 percent of capacity. However that can be rescinded if the number of cases rises, he said.

"Doctors, nurses and dentists need to get back to work," Abbott said, apparently referring to non-COVID-19 activities. He said there would still be a restriction on hospitals to reserve 15 percent of their beds for COVID-19 patients.

Museums and libraries will be able to re-open on May 1 with 25 percent capacity limits, he said, adding however that no interactive exhibits at museums would be allowed. He also said that if private museums and libraries did not want to open, they did not have to.

Sporting activities that involve four or fewer people at a time — think tennis and golf — will be the only ones allowed to resume at this time (well other than jogging and running which have been ongoing.)

Churches can open their doors with social distancing in the pews. It has not yet been decided whether summer camps will be able to open, Abbott said. 

His latest executive order can be accessed online.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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