Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday he will allow his stay-at-home order for the Lone Star State to expire on Thursday, commencing a phased exit from the social distancing measures meant to mitigate the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The Republican’s new order, which supersedes local orders, will allow businesses like retail stores, malls, restaurants and theaters to reopen Friday but limits occupancy to 25%. The order will also allow libraries and museums to open.
Abbott noted that he wants barbershops, salons, gyms and bars open “as soon as possible” and expects them to open no later than mid-May.
“Now it’s time to set a new course, a course that responsibly opens up business in Texas,” Abbott said. “We will open in a way that uses safe standards – safe standards for businesses, for their employees as well as for their customers. Standards based upon data and on doctors.”
His announcements comes as more states plan phased reopenings of their economies, despite public health professionals having repeatedly stressed the dangers of relaxing social distancing measures too early, and it’s being met with disapproval and skepticism by some Democrats in the state.
Experts widely agree that to control the epidemic in the absence of strict social distancing measures, states and localities will need to build the capacity for additional testing and contact tracing – something Texas medical and public health officials have told CNN the state isn’t doing at a large enough scale to reopen.
That process of identifying new cases of Covid-19 and then tracking down and quarantining anyone who could have been infected by those newly identified cases would be crucial to returning to normal life.
But Abbott pushed back Monday, saying that the state “should easily exceed our goal of 25,000 tests per day” by early May and that Dr. Deborah Birx – the White House coronavirus response coordinator – told him “the Texas plan was great.”
CNN has reached out to Birx for comment.
Touting Texas’ plan as the “result of tremendous input,” Abbott said the state will not mandate but “strongly recommend” that everyone wear a mask as businesses reopen.
“Now more than ever, Texans must remain committed to safe distancing practices that reduce the spread of Covid-19, and we must continue to rely on doctors and data to provide us with the safest strategies to restore Texans’ livelihoods,” he said.
“We must also focus on protecting the most vulnerable Texans from exposure to Covid-19. If we remain focused on protecting the lives of our fellow Texans, we can continue to open the Lone Star State.”
Texas Democratic Party executive director Manny Garcia said in a statement following Abbott’s announcement that his decision to let the order expire “is reckless, irresponsible, and puts all of us at risk,” and called it “just the latest in the Republican coronavirus catastrophe.”
And Texas Democratic Rep. Sylvia Garcia on Monday questioned what data and doctors Abbott relied on to make his decision, saying in a statement following his announcement that she’s “disappointed that we got no real clarification as to what data he relies on.”
Still, Abbott faces a unique challenge in reopening Texas, the world’s 10th largest economy.
While previewing the state’s strategy earlier this month, Abbott said a group of medical and economic experts would guide him through a series of incremental steps aimed at slowly reopening the state’s economy.
“A more strategic approach is required to ensure that we don’t reopen only to have to close down again, so consistent with CDC guidelines and based on advice from infectious disease specialists we will open Texas businesses in phases,” Abbott said Monday.
A premature opening of private businesses, he stressed, would risk further outbreaks.
That approach marks a significant step back from what some had anticipated would be a much more aggressive push from Abbott to reopen the famously pro-business Texas.
The Lone Star State and its $1.8 trillion economy, second only to California in size, has been hit particularly hard by tumbling oil prices and the global pandemic.
As a result, Abbott has had to strike a delicate balance between two opposing forces: a push from the state’s business community eager to get back to work and health professionals and economists warning that a premature restart could be deadly.
“The lives saved are priceless, but the price has been steep. Many have lost jobs, others have lost businesses. Many are struggling to pay their bills. I want those Texans to know they are not alone in this fight,” he said Monday.
“Just as we united as one state to slow Covid-19, we must also come together to begin rebuilding the lives and the livelihoods of our fellow Texans.”
This story has been updated with additional information Monday.
CNN’s Maeve Reston, Caroline Kenny, Donald Judd and Julia Jones contributed to this report.