Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday announced a statewide strike force of medical and economic experts to focus on opening the state, setting early May as his target date for some private businesses while emphasizing that the evolving guidelines will be determined by “data and by doctors.”
The Republican governor said he will announce plans for opening the first wave of Texas businesses on April 27, depending on whether the state has been able to contain the coronavirus, but schools will be closed for the remainder of the school year.
“Because of the efforts by everyone to slow the spread, we’re now beginning to see glimmers that the worst of Covid-19 may soon be behind us,” Abbot said during a midday news conference.
The red state governor’s cautious approach to opening private businesses served as an important counterpoint to President Donald Trump’s optimism about the readiness of businesses around the country to reopen their doors. Texas has long brandished its reputation as one of the most pro-business states in the country, yet Abbott said repeatedly that data from medical experts will guide his orders about what kinds of businesses will reopen in May.
Abbott’s “Strike Force to Open Texas” will include Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – who stirred controversy across the nation in late March by arguing that Americans should be allowed to go back to work – as well as Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt.
Among the medical experts who will serve on the advisory council are Dr. Mark McClellan, the former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner and U.S. Medicaid and Medicare Administrator; Dr. John Zerwas, who is executive vice-chancellor for Health Affairs at the University of Texas system; and Dr. Parker Hudson, an assistant professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at Dell Medical School.
Those doctors will work in collaboration with several dozen business leaders including Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies; businessman Ross Perot Jr.; jewelry entrepreneur Kendra Scott; Brad Heffington, the owner of Heffington Farms, Inc. and Triple T Irrigation, Inc.; and Kathy Britton, the CEO of Perry Homes, along with a number of small business owners.
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“We have demonstrated that we can corral the coronavirus,” Abbott said, pointing to a statistic that Texas has the “second-most recoveries from Covid-19 of all states in America.”
“Understand this: opening in Texas must occur in stages. Obviously, not all businesses can open all at once on May 1. Some businesses, if fully open, without better distancing standards, would be more likely to set us back, rather than to propel us forward. A more strategic approach is required to ensure that we don’t reopen only to have to shut down once again.”
Texas, however, has conducted only 169,536 coronavirus tests as of early Friday afternoon in a state of 29 million people, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. There are more than 17,300 coronavirus cases reported so far and 428 coronavirus-related fatalities. An estimated 4,190 patients have recovered from the virus.
In contrast, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has said his state of 20 million people has tested more than 500,000 people for coronavirus over the past month. California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has set a goal of conducting 25,000 tests a day by the end of this month within the state’s population of 40 million people.
Abbott has said the state is trying to ramp up testing in partnership with private industry and has said he sees “glimmers of hope” in testing data so far “with a bunch of red flags attached.”
When pressed by reporters on Friday about how the state can reopen at a time when many believe testing is inadequate, Abbott said he expects to see a major expansion in testing by the end of April in Texas. He declined however to set a goal of how many coronavirus tests should be done each day statewide in order for Texans to feel comfortable resuming their normal daily lives.
The Republican governor has spoken frequently with Vice President Mike Pence as the Trump administration tries to help bolster the struggling energy sector, and Abbott said he also conferred with Trump about his reopening plans over the weekend.
Unemployment claims in Texas rose above one million over the past month, representing about 7.2% of the state’s total labor force, leading some business leaders to nudge Abbott toward reopening. The state’s economy is reeling not only from coronavirus closures but also the plunge in oil prices, which have fallen from about $60 a barrel down below $20 since January.
The need for coronavirus resources in Texas will not peak until April 29, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Local officials in Harris County, which includes Houston, have said their area must first reach its peak number of cases, start on the downslope in new infections and implement “mass testing” before the region can return to business-as-usual.
Abbott issued his stay-at-home order on April 2. Over the past week, he has said he is working on plans to reopen private businesses “slowly, strategically, smartly and safely.”
Abbott was also asked whether his move on Friday to loosen a previous executive order deferring elective surgeries applied to abortions, as the state had looked to include abortions among procedures that were restricted during the outbreak.
“Ultimately, obviously, that will be a decision for courts to make,” Abbott said, later adding, “that is not part of this order.”
State abortion providers and national abortion rights groups sued state officials in March, alleging that the order violated abortion seekers’ constitutional right to the procedure. The case has ricocheted back and forth between federal courts, with an appeals court earlier this week blocking the order from applying to medication abortions and abortions for those that would be past the legal limit for an abortion in Texas on April 22, the day after the state’s order was set to expire.
This story has been updated to include additional comments and background information.
CNN’s Caroline Kelly contributed to this report.