Abbott is pushing a rosy picture of Texas’ coronavirus curve to reopen the state

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Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference on Monday detailing the reopening of the Texas economy. He announced the statewide stay-at-home order will expire Thursday and beginning May 1, retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and malls will be allowed to reopen as long as occupancy is limited to 25 percent. 

It’s a decision that has pleased virtually no one. Republicans to the governor’s right believe 25 percent is too low. Democrats argue more testing, PPE, and aid to residents is needed before reopening the state. Restaurants are wondering if they can keep the lights on with a 25 percent cap on customers. Texans themselves, polled in the days leading up to Abbott’s announcement, overwhelmingly favor the closure of businesses and the statewide stay-at-home order.

In Abbott’s press conference the governor claimed that the decline in the state’s infection rate over the past 17 days informed his decision to begin reopening the economy. But considering Texas ranks near the bottom in the country for per capita testing, there’s little reason to have faith in that metric alone for accurately tracking the rise and fall of the pandemic. Even so, the state’s own data shows that the average number of daily cases over the past five days increased compared to the previous five days. Using that five-day moving average—a method used by John Hopkins to calculate the rate of change in coronavirus curves around the globe— it’s clear Texas is far from flattening its own.

The coronavirus curve in Texas has, at best, plateaued. The drop in new cases since early April is evidence of social distancing working, not proof that the outbreak has been contained. “On a trend line of total cases, a flattened curve looks how it sounds: flat,” wrote Johns Hopkins University.

Worse, Texas hasn’t even fulfilled the Trump Administration’s relatively weak guidelines for reopening states, which proposes that states see a downward trajectory of documented cases for two straight weeks before reopening. 

The number of new daily COVID-19 fatalities in Texas, a grim figure that doesn’t rely on testing to track the pandemic, also shows a similarly unflattened trend.

In the same press conference, Abbott said that the number of Texans who have recovered from the virus will soon exceed the number of active cases. But there’s little confidence in that figure, said Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-El Paso) in a press call with Texas Democrats.

“He cannot say that with a straight face because we do not know how many people are truly COVID positive,” Escobar said. “Texas just hasn’t done the per capita testing that it needs to do.” 

While the first months of the outbreak saw Abbott allow for a patchwork of local orders in tackling the pandemic, and despite promising last week to allow local governments to not “fully participate” in the phased reopening, on Monday, Abbott made it clear he alone is in charge of the state’s reopening. “The extent to which this order opens up businesses in Texas supersedes all local orders,” he said.

Reacting to the news, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said local social distancing measures—like stay-at-home orders seen extended in major counties around the state in recent weeks—were now “out of our hands locally.” 

That’s bad news for counties, like Dallas or El Paso, that have not seen their coronavirus curves flattened. 

“@GregAbbott_TX has put us on a path toward more #COVID hospitalizations, before significantly ramping up testing, before giving communities the resources we need, and with no real plan on how to protect our seniors and those with health conditions,” wrote Gregorio Casar, an Austin City Council Member in a series of tweets reacting to the governor’s orders.

“If our hospital rooms fill up because of @GregAbbott_TX, our health officials will likely recommend that we shut down businesses again—and we will not hesitate to do so, no matter what the Governor has to say about it.”

Photo: Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images

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