Businesses across Texas reopen, despite lack of contact tracing

By Abbie Perrault, The Big Bend Sentinel

TEXAS — The state is progressing its reopening to phase two, Governor Greg Abbott announced on Monday. The update paved the way for bars, camps, children’s programming, sports and more to reopen as well as letting restaurants jump their dining room capacity up to 50 percent, despite a lack of comprehensive contact tracing efforts across Texas.

Starting Friday, restaurants can open to 50 percent, bars, wine rooms and breweries can open to 25 percent, and drive-in concerts, bowling alleys and skating rinks can open with certain restrictions.

By Sunday, May 31, youth sports camps, little leagues with socially-distant spectating, summer camps, vacation bible schools, 4H camps and professional sports are permitted to begin. Abbott said the state is now looking into strategies to reopen theme parks, taking cues from other states and countries who are testing out how to open safely.

While the state swings its doors open, restrictions on the southern ports of entry between Texas and Mexico will remain in place. The government on Tuesday extended its limitations, keeping nonessential travel across the border closed until at least June 22.

Locally, Presidio, Brewster and Jeff Davis counties all applied for and were approved to extend their 25 percent reopening to 50 percent last week. The counties were eligible to expand their reopening beyond the state’s standard allowance because each has fewer than five confirmed coronavirus cases. It gave the three counties a jump start on the expanded capacity most other counties will get on Friday.

As part of the attestation counties had to give in order to apply for a wider reopening, judges were told to provide a comprehensive plan for “contact tracing,” a method where officials would need to identify individuals who tested positive for coronavirus, and then contact any individuals who had direct contact with the infected patient.

Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara said their attestation simply indicated that the regional health department would be handling the tracing. Regional officials told Presidio County that they would offer contact tracing services over the phone. The regional offices did not return a request for comment about their capabilities in implementing comprehensive contact tracing at this point.

Meanwhile, Dr. John Hellerstedt, the commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said during the Monday press conference that the state is “ramping up on our case tracking, tracing” but that currently “we are not able to contact every single test in the state.” Realistically, the state would need a workforce of 4,000, he said. “We have a web based application that will cover the entire state and enable case tracing across the state, but it’s still being developed.”

Across the state, restaurants, barbershops, hair salons and gyms are all deciding whether to open, how to open and how much to open. With the new directives, their options are expanding.

Notably, the governor has restricted some counties from entering phase two. El Paso, Randall, Potter, Moore and Deaf Smith counties are delayed by one week, with further delays possible. These counties have either experienced outsized coronavirus outbreaks (especially in meat packing plants and nursing homes) or are struggling to meet demand for hospital beds.

Abbott specifically called the hospital capacity in El Paso “too close for comfort,” which raises concerns for the tri-county area. Big Bend Regional Medical Center, the local hospital that services Presidio, Brewster and Jeff Davis counties, has previously mentioned plans to send critical patients to El Paso for care if their small capacity is exceeded. Thus far the area has been fortunate, with only one case confirmed and no hospitalizations yet.

Meanwhile, El Paso has recorded 1,852 cases as of press time, with the virus claiming the lives of 52 El Pasoans.

“The governor said we’re going to have to learn to coexist with this pandemic,” Judge Guevara said about the continued reopening of the county and state. “I feel reopening is necessary if businesses are going to survive and people are going to get back to work. It’s going to be up to every individual to be very responsible and very careful.”

“Hopefully they will see using masks and being extra careful as a form of charity towards their neighbor,” Guevara said. “Even if you’re not fearful of getting it, if you exercise all of the cautions, it’s a consideration for other people.”

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