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Ready or not, Texas reopens Friday

(Elise Pepple / Marfa Public Radio)

By Abbie Perrault, The Big Bend Sentinel

TEXAS – Governor Greg Abbott announced Monday that he would allow his stay-at-home order to expire April 30, introducing a phased reopening plan that begins Friday, May 1.

The reopening plan has called into question the powers of counties and cities to use emergency orders to limit activity during coronavirus. The new mandate also revealed that while the governor said individuals have the “ultimate control” in their choice to continue to stay home or go out, many will risk losing unemployment if they decide not to immediately return to work at reopened businesses.

Notably, the governor said his order supersedes all local orders, putting an end to regulations like those in the City of Presidio that have required residents to wear masks.

In the tri-county, officials have implemented harsher regulations during coronavirus than the state has. Marfa and Presidio County restricted hotels and rentals in emergency orders this April, and now the governments question whether they will be allowed to extend those orders.

When coronavirus concerns began, Texas’ cities and counties took action, ordering residents to stay-at-home in a patchwork of local ordinances, rather than a state mandate. The governor issued a stay-at-home after that, and now, that local power is dissipating as the governor supersedes local control with his order.

Hotels and motels are not explicitly mentioned in the governor’s new orders, something local officials think might still allow them the power to choose to restrict them if needed.

On Tuesday, the governor’s office provided a statement to Presidio County’s attorney, Rod Ponton, saying, “Hotels and motels have been an essential service, which (per the Governor’s Executive Orders) means that local governments cannot restrict them.” The Texas attorney general’s office additionally said that restricting short-term rentals like Airbnbs is a violation of private property rights and that hotels can not be lawfully closed.

In a memorandum to county commissioners, Ponton shared this information and recommended county officials let their local orders expire on April 30.

Commissioner Brenda Bentley disagreed, saying “I feel that allowing the orders to expire would give people the impression that because there are no orders, it’s safe, and they’re free to just go back to life as usual.” She called the move dangerous at this point, and hoped to implement some orders that do not contradict the governor’s, in order to “let people know we’re not out of the woods yet.”

Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara said on Tuesday that she no longer sees a reason for the hotel, motel and short-term rental restrictions. “At first we had all this fear and didn’t know about the virus or how to prevent it,” Guevara said. With more information available now, she said people just need to be responsible.

“I don’t know if we can continue to hurt them economically that way,” speaking of the economic hit the local hotel industry has taken during the closure. “I know a lot of people are going to be upset and confused, but I’ll go back to the governor’s orders that if people want to shelter in place and don’t want to go out, they don’t have to.”

As of press time, the county has not formally set a meeting to discuss the expiring orders. The City of Marfa held a meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday after press time to discuss actions going forward. They will meet again tonight, Thursday, with details for the digital meeting available on the city’s website.

As for the governor’s phased reopening plan, phase one begins on Friday, May 1. In that phase, the governor emphasizes that vulnerable populations, especially those over age 65, should stay home “if at all possible.”

“All retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls can reopen May 1,” Abbott said of the first phase on Friday. The order also allows museums and libraries to reopen, as long as hands-on exhibits are closed.

“This is permission to open, not a requirement,” Abbott said, suggesting businesses can stay closed on their own convictions. With individuals no longer required to stay at home, Abbott said they still have “ultimate control” over their own safety, adding that those who are concerned “should use that control.” But as businesses reopen, workers will be offered their jobs back, and that comes with consequences.

TWC spokesperson Cisco Gamez confirmed that those who choose to continue to exercise their “ultimate control” and stay home will lose their unemployment if they do not return to their reopened job. “If your business is safe and meeting those guidelines and you do not go back to work, you will not be eligible for unemployment insurance,” Gamez told multiple press outlets.

Texas residents, even those who are older or are immunocompromised, may have to choose between personal health and paying the bills. Without the security of unemployment payments, many will return to work.

For all businesses in phase one, Abbott said, “On the advice of doctors, occupancy is limited to no more than 25 percent.” He called that limitation a proven business strategy, noting that HEB and Home Depot have used it.

But in communities like each of the three tri-counties, the state will potentially allow even more capacity to open in businesses. For counties in Texas with fewer than five cases recorded, 50 percent capacity is permitted at businesses.

Presidio, Brewster and Jeff Davis counties meet that provision, and may submit a form to the state for approval to open at 50 percent capacity. On the subject of the more relaxed rules for counties with fewer than five cases, Abbott said, “If there is an outbreak, it could cause them to revert back to a more limited capacity.”

Phase one allows doctors, nurses and dentists to return to regular operations with general advice to social distance and take precautions. It allows essential businesses to continue as they have and also expands infectious disease protocols for senior living communities.

The first phase does not allow for barbershops, hair salons, bars or gyms to reopen, though the governor said he hoped to have those up and running by mid-May.

That will all depend on the success of phase one. If the state sees a bounce in cases after phase one is in effect, that’s not enough by itself. “Just because there may be an increase in the number of people who test positive, that’s not a decisive criteria,” Abbott said. The governor said hospitalization rates and death rates also weigh into the calculation of moving to phase two.

Phase two opens more businesses and is scheduled for May 18, pending any flare up of cases, hospitalizations and deaths that would cause the state to reconsider.

“There’s a reason that not all businesses in Texas can open all at once,” Abbott said. He cited “precautionary tales” like a new growth in cases in certain parts of China and Singapore experiencing a second wave that is bigger than its first.

Defending his decision to reopen at this time, the governor pointed to his recently deployed mobile testing units run by the National Guard, a new contact-tracing effort and an aspirational goal to test 26,000 Texans a day as reasons it is now safer to reopen businesses in the state.

“It’s hard to get rid of this virus because it is so contagious,” Abbott said. “We’re not just going to open up and hope for the best.” He told the press the phases were put in place so “we don’t have to reopen and have to close down” again, and mentioned again that present and future decisions rely on “doctors and data.”

The governor also signed a new executive order Monday that states, “Every person who enters the State of Texas as the final destination through an airport, from a point of origin or point of last departure in the following — State of California; State of Connecticut; State of New York; State of New Jersey; State of Washington; City of Atlanta, Georgia; City of Chicago, Illinois; City of Detroit, Michigan; or City of Miami, Florida — shall be subject to mandatory self-quarantine for a period of 14 days from the time of entry into Texas or the duration of the person’s presence in Texas, whichever is shorter.”