Texans rallied outside the state Capitol over the weekend, pushing for Gov. Greg Abbott to quickly reopen the state. But, as Texas COVID-19 deaths continue to rise, Abbott’s planning a more gradual approach and outlined a phased reopening for the state’s economy on Friday.
“We have demonstrated that we can corral the coronavirus,” Abbott announced.
The prospect of returning to some kind of normal has a lot of Texans on an emotional rollercoaster, ranging from terrified to excited, according to voice memos people shared with Houston Public Media.
“I just worry that we’re doing this too soon,” said Dries Berghman, who lives in Kingwood and is able to work from home for a large power company.
He said he supported the governor taking a slower approach. More than anything, he said, the state has to get it right the first time.
“I don’t think that folks really have the patience to do this again when we’ve just gone through nearly a month of social distancing already,” Berghman said.
For Melissa Stewart, the prospect of the state reopening is exciting - but only if it can be done “reasonably and safely using common sense.” She said the emotional toll of staying home feels heavy after nearly a month.
“It’s been very hard watching so many things not get celebrated or recognized,” Stewart said. That includes her daughter’s 10th birthday and her First Communion.
“I’m OK for me, but it’s really hard seeing my kids miss out on things,” she said.
Stewart directs the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, and she said working on ways to support restaurant owners and their employees keeps her up at night.
Still, the anxiety about reopening too fast weighs even heavier for many Houstonians.
“The thought of reopening the economy terrifies me,” Rachel Fairbank said. “It’s hard to say no when it’s your paycheck on the line.”
The reaction to reopening the state’s economy is more mixed for Juan Alanis, who applied for federal aid to help cover payroll at his PR agency.
“I think the uncertainty is what’s really stressful,” Alanis said. “The fact that now we see that light at the end of the tunnel, it gives me hope.”
Public health experts maintain testing is critical in order to reopen the state’s economy safely.
Last week, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told Houston Public Media that it’s not safe for business as usual until the region hits its peak number of COVID-19 cases. And even then, more testing is needed.
“If we make it past the peak, and we reopen, and we don’t have enough testing, or fast enough testing, cases are bound to reappear,” Hidalgo said. “Once they do, we will have to shut everything back down again and we will be right where we were three weeks ago.”
That need for testing is on the mind of Paul Alvarez. He works in the gig economy — he had landed a contract with the South By Southwest music and tech festival until the pandemic shut it down –and doesn’t have health insurance.
“I’m afraid that if people are able to go back to any workplace, that we would be working alongside individuals who are vectors who are shedding the virus and have not been tested — people who are asymptomatic,” Alvarez said.
Some civic leaders told Houston Public Media they want more widespread testing for communities of color, who’ve been disproportionately affected by the virus nationwide. Other measures people mentioned included masks, public sanitizing stations and continued social distancing.
Still, Jordan Davis said he worries people don’t follow basic recommendations from the CDC. He said the pandemic has been tough on him. He was furloughed from his hospitality job and filed for unemployment and is trying to receive his stimulus check.
“I believe we would need to take a higher precaution in protecting ourselves and the guest by cleaning the public areas, keeping sanitizing stations by our desks, more thorough cleaning of rooms and the common areas and definitely wearing masks and gloves for an unknown amount of time,” Davis said.
But health has to come first for many Houstonians.
“I would remind our state leaders that businesses can’t be profitable if their employees and customers are sick or dying,” Fairbank said.
Abbott has pledged Texas will dramatically increase its ability to test in the coming weeks, but he hasn’t released specific details.
And it’s those details that many Texans want to know before they feel comfortable resuming their daily activities.