Reopening Texas brings divide between moving too fast or not fast enough

State & Regional

AUSTIN, Texas (KXAN) — Governor Greg Abbott is expected to announce new plans on Monday to reopen businesses and loosen other restrictions currently in place in Texas due to the coronavirus.

“We need to understand this: the coronavirus has not left the state of Texas,” Abbott said in an interview on KXAN. He said that he plans to move slowly.

“If people suddenly start congregating together in ways that do not continue distancing practices, the spread will rise up once again,” Abbott warned.

Even as the Governor pledges to move forward with caution, he has faced criticism that it’s too soon to reopen businesses. But Abbott also faces critics who say he’s not moving fast enough to lift restrictions. Much of the pressure to move faster comes from fellow Republicans.

“We cannot endure this much longer,” Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said during an appearance on Fox News. He was speaking about the nationwide impact of closures due to the coronavirus.

“Every month we stay closed, it’s going to take two to three months to rebuild,” Patrick told Fox host Tucker Carlson. He said shutting down to slow the spread of the virus was not worth the toll on the nation’s economy.

“Our country should not have been locked down,” Patrick said.

The divide over how quickly to lift restrictions is playing out among everyday Texans as well. A new poll from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune aims to give some insight into the positions of people statewide.

The poll collected data from 1,200 self-declared registered voters from the period between April 10 – 19. One question asked Texans when they thought the virus would be contained enough so that most activities in public can return to normal.

“Nine percent said the virus was already handled to do that, 21 percent said in the next few weeks, 41 percent said in the next few months, 17 percent said in the next year,” said Jim Henson with the Texas Politics Project, which handled the poll.

Henson said the results reflect some frustration with current restrictions. “I think there’s a group of people that are ready to go back to ‘normal’ if we can ever find a new normal.”

Henson noted that opinions about lifting restrictions largely split along party lines.

“I would say to summarize it, Republicans are more impatient to get back to normal than Democrats,” Henson said. “For example if you look at the people who said [the virus would be contained] in the next few weeks, 35 percent of Republicans said in the next few weeks.  Only seven percent of Democrats said in the next few weeks.

The poll comes as Governor Abbott prepares to announce his plans to reopen Texas. Henson said overall, the poll shows Texans still take the coronavirus risk very seriously.

“I think that the leadership doesn’t have to feel so quite so pushed into acting even though there are vocal critics of the stay at home policy,” Henson said.

One question in the poll highlights a point of unity for most Texans.

“I think that if there’s one really interesting result it’s that 85 percent sill support a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for anyone exposed to the virus,” Henson said. “That includes 92 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Democrats.”

Henson believes the result shows Texans still see the virus as a serious threat, even amid concerns about the economy.

“If you strip away any uncertainty and look at they know there’s a case where someone has been exposed, they’re willing to require people stay at home for two weeks,” Henson explained. “And I think that tells you about the baseline seriousness with which people take this pandemic.”

Comptroller: Texas has cash flow flexibility amid downturn

Oil prices crashed into negative territory last week for the first time in history. On Monday, producers would have had to pay someone to take their oil.

Prices crashed because of an oversupply of oil at the same time demand drastically dropped because of the coronavirus. The end result means lost profits and thousands of jobs on the chopping block here in Texas.

Oil industry profits have a big impact on the state’s budget. But State Comptroller Glenn Hegar says Texas can handle the downturn. Hegar said the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, puts Texas in better shape than most other states.

“We think that when the Legislature comes back into session in January, they’ll probably have about 8-point-5 billion dollars in that fund,” Hegar said during a webinar hosted by the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce.

Hegar said the fund helps Texas from a cash flow perspective. He said he’s spoken with treasurers in other states that don’t have that flexibility.

“The situation in other states is much more severe in this period because they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to cash flow during this period, where Texas is able to,” Hegar said.

The Comptroller said that sales tax revenue in Texas will drop as a result of the coronavirus impact on businesses. That has raised questions about whether Texas may be more severely impacted than other states because of its heavy reliance on sales taxes, as opposed to states that bring in revenue from income taxes as well.

Hegar said he believes states with a heavy reliance on income taxes are likely to be hit harder by the downturn.

“That income tax is not just spread out among everybody, it’s much more concentrated at the higher income levels and the higher income levels is on capital gains,” Hegar explained. “And right now in the market, obviously there’s not going to be capital gains.”

Hegar said he plans to issue a revised revenue estimate in July. He explained that’s when the state will have a better picture of the effect oil prices and the coronavirus shut down will have on the budget.

Congressman McCaul looks into how to prevent future pandemics

Texas Congressman Michael McCaul sent a letter to constituents that touched on his concerns about bioterrorism. The lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote that the current coronavirus pandemic is a reminder of how destructive viruses can be.

“We have always worried about a pandemic, whether that be man-made being a bioweapon, or in this case probably more a natural virus that has evolved or mutated in these wildlife wet markets,” McCaul said.

“You know, if you’d written about this in a fictional way a year ago, no one would have believed it,” McCaul said of the virus. “But here we are today in just a complete devastation to the entire world both economically and from a health standpoint,” he continued, emphasizing the death toll and the millions around the globe impacted by the pandemic.

Congressman McCaul said that he’s working with the State Department in an investigation of how the pandemic started. McCaul said he believes government officials in China need to be held accountable.

McCaul said there is evidence Chinese officials tried to stop doctors who attempted to alert authorities about the virus in the early days of the outbreak.

“We had a window of time, a period where this could have been contained in China and instead they allowed their spring lunar Festival New Year’s Festival to take place where millions of people traveled outside of Wuhan and outside of China internationally,” McCaul said.

“That’s the point where it went from a local epidemic in China to a global pandemic threatening the world,” he concluded.

He said it’s important for the State Department to hold the Chinese government accountable. “We don’t want to see it happen again,” McCaul said.

Volume of unemployment claims steady as state adds capacity to take calls

The Texas Workforce Commission opened a new call center on Friday, April 24 in order to help with the influx of calls regarding unemployment benefits amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That will add 300 people to take calls,” TWC executive director Ed Serna said. “They’ll probably be fully up to speed very early next week, because we’ll be working through the weekend.”

Serna said before the pandemic, the TWC staffed about 350 to 400 people in the existing call centers.

“As of today, we have those 400 people, plus an additional close to 1000 people maybe a little bit more than 1000 people answering the phone, so close to 1500 people answering the telephone,” Serna said those extra people are desperately needed, as the number of calls the TWC is receiving each week is not slowing down any time soon.

“Interestingly enough, the total number of people getting to us or trying to get into trying to get to is hasn’t decreased, nor has it increased substantially,” Serna explained, “And it is probably because of more and more businesses as this thing stretches out more and more businesses are having to furlough their staff. More industries are affected.”

In addition to taking calls, TWC is also making calls. Those outgoing calls include thousands of self-employed Texans who erroneously received letters telling them they are not eligible for any benefits.

“Initially it was it was over 90,000 went out,” Serna explained, “The reason they got that letter is because under normal circumstances, they’re not eligible for benefits.”

Serna said the TWC is working to fix the system so those letters do not go out automatically anymore, because, under the CARES Act, self-employed Texans are eligible for benefits. In the meantime, he said these workers will be contacted soon.

“If you receive one of those letters, we’re going to get to you and we’re going to get to as quickly as we can. We’re not talking weeks, we’re talking, you know, days, we probably already have gotten to you,” Serna said.

(Information from KXAN.com)

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