Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is incrementally reopening businesses across the state beginning at the end of the week, short-circuiting any locally driven efforts at unwinding restrictions meant to slow the spread of coronavirus.

In a Monday press conference, Abbott announced that restaurant dining rooms, retailers, movie theaters, museums, single-person offices, and libraries can begin serving customers at up to 25 percent of their official occupancy capacity starting on Friday, May 1.

Abbott made clear that his order supersedes local shutdown orders, including the joint stay-home order issued by the City and Bexar County. However, enforcement of rules like the 25 percent occupancy is up to local authorities, along with state regulatory agencies, the governor said.

“For a lot of these businesses, they have an authorization to conduct business in the state of Texas,” Abbott said. “And if they violate the law … they’re subject to losing their license to have an open business.”

Abbott added that businesses can choose to remain closed, if they wish.

“This is permission to open, not a requirement,” Abbott said.

In their daily press briefing Monday, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Judge Nelson Wolff said local officials will take up this week how to issue new local orders that comply with the governor’s. The City and County’s current stay-home, work-safe orders expire April 30.

Nirenberg said he hopes the governor’s policy “doesn’t make us regress.” San Antonio has seen a relatively low number of new cases over the past two weeks compared to earlier in April.

“We’re standing under an umbrella,” Nirenberg said. “It’s dry over here, but that doesn’t mean it’s not raining outside.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg briefs the community on the coronavirus pandemic and how it has impacted San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

So far, nearly 280,000 tests conducted since early March have confirmed more than 25,297 coronavirus cases in Texas, with 663 deaths and nearly 11,200 recoveries. More than 1,500 people are currently hospitalized.

Wolff said Abbott made the “right call in opening up retail, restaurants, and movies” but also called it a “mistake” not to mandate wearing masks in cases when people can’t stand at least 6 feet apart.

All licensed health care professionals are allowed to return to work with few restrictions, Abbott said, though hospitals are required to reserve 15 percent capacity for coronavirus patients. 

Bars, hair and nail salons, gyms, and other non-medical businesses that involve close personal contact will remain closed. 

Under Abbott’s order, rural counties with five or fewer confirmed coronavirus cases as of April 30 can allow restaurants, retail stores, museums, movie theaters, and libraries to open at half capacity. 

Abbott’s order comes as the joint City-County Health Transition Team prepares to present their own recommendations. Members of the nine-person team made up of doctors and public health experts are set to speak at a special City Council and Bexar County Commissioners meeting 1 p.m. Tuesday.

Nirenberg on Monday said the team has studied the right thresholds for the safe reopening of businesses and the different levels of risk associated with different ways to loosen restrictions.

Wolff and Nirenberg said that County and City likely will work to fill in gaps not mentioned by Abbott’s order. One example is continuing to ban public gatherings, such as concerts.

The loosening comes as epidemiologists warn that an increase in movement will lead to an increase in cases.

One model custom-made for San Antonio currently indicates that the City could see nearly 400,000 active cases by late May if social distancing were to stop entirely. If half of the social distancing in place now were to persist, however, it could lead to a peak of 1,100 active cases in early June.

How major employers implement their own policies to prevent the spread of the coronavirus could help influence the virus’ escalation over the coming weeks.

At a board meeting Monday ahead of the governor’s announcement, CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams said the electric and gas utility’s staff of roughly 3,100 would continue to follow many of its preventative measures. These include field workers continuing and office staff using teleconferencing to minimize contact.

“We won’t automatically just go back to the way it was,” Gold-Williams said.

As part of his order, Abbott laid out some additional steps to reopen more businesses later next month. Those businesses opened Friday could see increase capacity to 50 percent of occupancy announced as soon as May 18, he said.

“We need to see two weeks of data to confirm no flareup of COVID-19,” Abbott said.

Abbott defined a “flareup” as an increase in hospitalizations, deaths, and hotspots. He said an increase in overall cases of COVID-19 alone could be attributed to an increase in statewide testing and would not be enough for the state to reconsider its reopening plan.

“There’s no one single factor we look at,” Abbott said. “We look at all of the data and consider what the data means.”

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.