By ED STERLING
AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott on May 18 allowed restaurants to increase occupancy to 50 percent and relaxed his earlier executive orders that limited certain other public activities over the last two months to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Reopenings, Abbott said, must adhere to restricted occupancy levels and minimum standard health protocols laid out by the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Notably, public schools have the option to provide in-person summer school so long as they follow social distancing practices and health protocols laid out by the state health department. Classes may begin as soon as June 1.
"I ask all Texans to continue heeding the guidance of our state and federal medical experts and do their part to protect public health. If we all unite in our resolve, we will overcome this challenge," Abbott said.
The full list of guidelines, openings and relevant dates is available at gov.texas.gov/opentexas.
Certain counties where there are surges in COVID-19 cases will have their beginning date of Phase II delayed until Friday (May 29). Those counties where a spike in cases has been confirmed include El Paso, Randall, Potter, Moore and Deaf Smith. Governor’s Surge Response Teams are at work in the Panhandle counties to increase testing, maintain hospital capacity and ensure that COVID-19 is contained and mitigated.
Cumulative figures posted May 21 by the Texas Department of State Health Services showed that 52,268 people in Texas had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 1,440 deaths resulting from the virus pandemic had been confirmed.
Budget cuts ordered
Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen on May 20 sent a letter to state agencies and institutions of higher education directing each of them to submit a plan identifying savings to reduce general revenue-related appropriations by 5% for the 2020-2021 two-year budget cycle.
The three highest-ranking state officials urge agencies and institutions of higher education to pursue cost-saving strategies that will not affect the state's response to COVID-19, such as forgoing capital expenditures that can be deferred, avoidable travel expenditures and administrative expenses that are not mission critical, and keeping unfilled any open positions that are not essential to Texas' COVID-19 response.
According to the letter, certain agencies and activities are exempted from the directive “given the importance of the state’s response to COVID-19 and the continuity of critical government functions.”
TSTA: It's too early
The Texas State Teachers Association, in a May 20 news release, said June 1 is too early to reopen school buildings for summer school classes and demanded that the state and local school districts agree to enforce a detailed list of safety requirements for school campuses before reopening buildings to students and school employees.
“With the COVID‐19 pandemic continuing to rage across Texas, the health and safety of students, educators and our communities need to remain our first priority,” said TSTA President Noel Candelaria. “The pandemic has struck in the vast majority of Texas’ 254 counties and more than 1,200 new cases were reported yesterday. Fourteen people died of COVID‐19 in Dallas County alone, a daily high for Dallas.”
Candelaria said TSTA is demanding adequate supplies of protective gear for everyone in every school workplace, steps that must be taken to enforce social distancing and sanitation practices and strong enforcement. “Half‐hearted enforcement will endanger students and educators, and our members will not stand for it on their campuses," said Candelaria.
Child care funding is cut
The Texas Workforce Commission on May 19 announced the phase-out of a $200 million emergency program to subsidize child care for Texas’ essential workers.
Subsidies were put in place to assist both essential workers and child care centers during limited enrollment. With Texas reopening, essential workers who are already on the subsidized plan will continue to receive child care for the three-month period they were initially approved for under the program.
Effective June 1, the Texas Workforce Commission will reinstate the requirement for parents receiving financial assistance to pay for a portion of their costs.
Ed Sterling is director of member services for the Texas Press Association.