On Friday night, bars across the state staged a “soft opening” without customers after enduring nearly two months of closures due to the COVID-19 crisis.
It was the brainchild of the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance, which presented a reopening plan to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office this week. It estimates thousands throughout the state lost a combined $650 million during the pandemic, and hopes Abbott’s Monday press conference will signal their return to business.
Abbott has remained tight-lipped, but he recently hinted to several news outlets he might reopen child care centers (closed to all but essential workers) immediately, with bars, massage parlors, tattoo parlors and perhaps water parks such as Schlitterbahn reopening on or before Memorial Day.
Statewide virus cases have steadily risen since Abbott’s stay-at-home orders expired April 30. There were 1,458 new cases and 58 deaths on Thursday — single-day highs for cases and deaths. Still, Abbott has defended opening up the state, saying infections and hospitalizations are steady — and far behind daily rates of both in New York, California and Florida.
New Braunfels and Comal County prove good harbingers of Abbott’s message. Slightly increased statewide testing has led to the spikes in active cases and deaths. Comal County seems to have a barrier protecting its 589-square miles, as its 70 total cases are far below bordering Guadalupe and Hays counties and, in real numbers, 300% under Bexar and Travis counties.
City and county officials know that, stating they are ever mindful of the governor’s executive orders and in constant communication with public health authorities, and that they will absorb and then closely follow Abbott’s next round of orders.
Gyms, manufacturing and other operations on Monday will become the latest businesses cleared to resume under 25% occupancy, with the restaurants and other establishments cleared on May 1 expected to increase occupancy to 50% during the week.
Attorney General Ken Paxton this week lashed out at the cities of Dallas, Austin and San Antonio over what he called “unlawful” local orders that are tougher than restrictions prescribed by Abbott, and threatened lawsuits if the cities don’t back off.
“Unfortunately, a few Texas counties and cities seem to have confused recommendations with requirements and have grossly exceeded state law to impose their own will on private citizens and businesses,” Paxton said.
Statewide testing for most of May is well short of Abbott’s stated goal of 30,000 per day. Since May 1, only 12 new cases have been confirmed in Comal County, and testing is up by 200 in the past two weeks — though it’s unknown if anyone accurately tracks those who have homes here reside in other counties.
“We usually get quick responses from the state, sometimes less than an hour,” Mayor Barron Casteel said. “They look at how we function, and one of the key things will be how our hospitals are impacted and how to change tracing in a way to track those from other areas of the state.”
Paxton ruled river operations could reopen under the governor’s orders, which received a boost from locals who help craft guidance measures. Abbott sought the same from bar owners and operators and the TBNA was quick to oblige.
Manufacturers will return under guidelines requiring 6 feet between work stations or Plexiglas inserts placed in between. High school graduations will resume the same way in a few weeks — students limited to five or fewer family members, all seated like islands during ceremonies at football stadiums.
Casteel, Mayor–Elect Rusty Brockman, Fire Chief Patrick O’Connell, City Manager Robert Camareno and County Judge Sherman Krause have long said testing, isolating and protecting has been key in preventing local spread. That will be all the more vital if Abbott’s new edicts further open that door.
“I think the city has stepped up really well with the advisory groups the mayor and city staff put together,” said Brockman, who succeeds Casteel on May 26. “They brought them to the table and talked to them about what they thought were important in getting (businesses) back to work.
“Their thoughts and ideas about reopening in a healthy and safe way were all part of the plan we’ve put in place … all of the businesses on the tourism side are going to work really hard to make sure their customers follow the rules.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.