As coronavirus cases rise, Texas businesses reopen. Here's what you need to know

Chuck Lindell
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas - Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to begin the gradual reopening of Texas businesses amid the coronavirus outbreak went into effect Friday morning.  

Abbott announced Wednesday that he let his stay-at-home order expire and signed Phase One of his Open Texas plan meaning many business can reopen.

The cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, reported to state health officials increased in number by about 1,000 Wednesday to 27,054, with 1,702 now in Texas hospitals, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The number of COVID-19-related deaths reported to the state rose by 42 to 732.

The number of infections is likely higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

Here’s some of what we can expect under phase one, which will continue until at least May 18:

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What can reopen?

All retail stores, malls, restaurants, movie theaters, libraries and museums must limit customers to 25% of their listed occupancy. Grocery stores, gas stations and other essential services that have already been open have no occupancy limits.

What remains closed?

Public swimming pools, bars, gyms, cosmetology salons, massage businesses, bowling alleys, video arcades and tattoo and piercing studios cannot yet open.

Abbott previously announced executive orders April 17 that all schools, public and private, will remain closed for the rest of the school year. 

What does the order require of individuals?

Abbott’s order, unveiled Monday, says “every person in Texas” must minimize social gatherings and contact with people who are not in the same household unless they need to provide or obtain services from essential or reopened businesses. Those over age 65 are strongly encouraged to stay home as much as possible, and all Texans are encouraged to keep at least 6 feet apart from others and wear a face covering in public.

What is required of reopened retail businesses?

According to the “minimum recommended health protocols” published by the state, retailers should regularly and frequently disinfect doorknobs, tables, chairs and other frequently touched surfaces; disinfect any items that come into contact with customers; and make hand sanitizer or a similar disinfectant available to employees and customers. Face coverings for employees are encouraged but not required. Stores are free to adopt tougher standards.

What about restaurants?

Under the state’s minimum recommended protocols, restaurants should keep parties at least 6 feet apart while waiting to be seated, and tables should be limited to no more than six diners. Condiments should be provided only on request and in single-serve packets; glasses, silverware and condiments should not be left on tables; disposable menus should be offered; and if there’s a buffet line, employees should serve the food.

A hand-sanitizing station should be placed at the entrance, and face coverings for workers are encouraged but not required. Employees should wash hands between serving customers, and tables, chairs and counters should be disinfected between customers. Each restaurant can adopt tougher standards.

Are there fines or other means of enforcement?

The protocols put in place by Abbott and his Strike Force to Open Texas are recommendations for best practices by businesses, employees and customers. There are no enforcement mechanisms beyond what have always existed — customers can decline to patronize businesses they believe are unsafe, and businesses can decline to serve patrons acting in an unsafe manner.

What about movie theaters?

To ensure spacing, theaters should keep at least two empty seats between patrons unless they are members of the same household or attending the screening together. Every other row should be kept empty, and seats and frequently touched areas should be disinfected between showings.

Theaters that serve food should provide single-serve packets of condiments upon request, and tables and other common areas should be cleaned after each group of customers departs. If customers write down food orders, take-home pencils and notepads should be provided and not reused. Wait staff should wash hands after serving each customer.

Are sports back in play?

Outdoor sports can resume if no more than four participants play at a time and the sport does not include contact with other players. Abbott’s order specified that it did not prohibit visiting parks, hunting, fishing or physical activity like jogging or bicycling if social distancing is practiced.

New protocols for golf courses include sanitizing golf carts and push carts between use, limiting golf cart occupants to one except for those from the same household, disinfecting driving range golf balls after use, and ensuring golfers remain at least 6 feet apart on driving ranges.

Are nursing homes still closed to visitors?

Yes, as are state supported living centers, assisted living facilities and long-term care facilities, which are also encouraged to limit employees from working in multiple facilities “to the greatest extent possible.”

Can religious services take place?

Abbott has allowed in-person services to take place since April 2, though many religious leaders have chosen to continue offering only online services. Houses of worship are encouraged to keep two empty seats or 6 feet between unrelated participants, with every other row left empty and seats and other touched items disinfected after each service.

Employees, volunteers and attendees should be encouraged to wear face coverings, and the state protocols also suggest reserving areas, or devoting entire services, to those at the greatest risk of the coronavirus — those 65 and older, especially those with a weakened immune system, lung disease, asthma, heart disease, severe obesity, diabetes, kidney disease or liver disease.

Follow Chuck Lidell on Twitter: @chucklindell