Officials: Onus is on us as stores, restaurants, malls reopen

Published: Apr. 29, 2020 at 5:20 PM CDT
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The responsibility for taking steps to prevent a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases as stores, restaurants, malls and theaters reopen Friday rests on the shoulders of Central Texas residents, officials in Bell and McLennan counties say.

On Monday Gov. Greg Abbott released

detailing the process of reopening the state’s economy starting on Friday.

The report was accompanied by executive orders regarding the

and an

Retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, malls, museums and libraries may reopen on Friday, but occupancy must be limited to no more than 25% of capacity and interactive areas of museums must remain closed.

Doctors, nurses and dentists may return to work with few restrictions, he said, churches may expand capacity, and certain sports activities involving no more than four people such as golf and tennis are permissible.

Smaller counties with five or fewer confirmed cases of the virus as of this Thursday may increase capacity of stores, restaurants, malls, theaters, museums and libraries provided the county’s judge certifies that certain standards have been met.

Barbershops, hair salons, bars and gyms aren’t among the businesses that may reopen Friday, but if the first phase goes well, they could be allowed to reopen in mid-May.

Occupancy limits include employees, Bell County Judge David Blackburn said during a news conference Thursday, and businesses and restaurants should police occupancy internally.

Neither county is requiring residents to wear face coverings in public places.

Wearing a mask isn’t a substitute for physical distancing or hand hygiene, wearing a mask isn’t feasible for everyone and it would be a waste of resources to mandate face coverings and cite violators, Bell County officials said Thursday.

Residents with concerns about whether guidelines are being followed should call the county’s COVID-19 hotline at (254) 933-5203, Blackburn said.

Waco and McLennan County officials, meanwhile, say if residents are incautious, the virus could gain a new foothold.

“We want to get our economy going, but if we move too quickly we will be forced back to shelter in place and that is the last thing any of us wants,” Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said during a virtual news conference Wednesday.

“We aren’t operating under a city and county plan anymore,” Deaver said.

“We are operating under a state plan.”

The guidelines for restaurants, theaters and businesses are posted on the Waco-McLennan County Health District’s

Officials are hoping operators enforce the guidelines themselves, but complaints will be referred to code enforcement.

“Look, these businesses are not going to be successful with only 25% capacity. They need 50% to 100% to be successful. So we expect them to follow the guidelines,” Deaver said.

An expansion of testing is key to reopening the economy, officials say.

Locally, residents who exhibit symptoms that might be attributable to COVID-19 are now being tested, but even more testing is necessary to move forward, they said, because people who are asymptomatic can spread the virus unknowingly.

Neither state nor local officials plan to require residents to wear face masks in public places in an effort to stem the spread, but they do recommend face coverings.

Ultimately, the key is testing and then more testing

Ultimately the availability and accuracy of COVID-19 tests will play a key role in reopening the economy and keeping it open.

"As we begin to think about reopening we need to expand the number of tests in order to keep a good sense of what the virus is doing in our community," Dr. Jackson Griggs with the Waco Family Health Center said.

"Currently we are doing about 100 tests per day and that is quite a bit more than we were doing three weeks ago," Griggs said, but he believes the number needs to rise as restrictions ease.

Officials in both Bell and McLennan counties say they now have enough test kits to increase the rate of testing.

"Back when we had very scarce tests we were prioritizing the most vulnerable health wise," says Griggs.

"Even when we thought for sure these individuals had COVID-19 we weren't testing them but telling them to isolate... now we have shifted into a time where testing is more available and there should be fewer and fewer of those cases," he says.

With more tests officials say the focus now shifts to contact tracing.

"If we can catch as many cases of those that are positive, then we can do contact tracing and identify all the close contacts are,” Griggs said.

"We would then reach out to those contacts and encourage them to self-quarantine to stop the spread," he says.

Antibody tests, however, aren’t quite yet ready for widespread use because they can produce false positives, he said.

"With the antibody test, we would rather have no information or false information," says Griggs.

"Once the dynamics of that antibody test get better then that test is going to be very valuable," he says.

(Megan Vanselow, Tyler Bouldin and Drake Lawson contributed to this story)

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