Texas Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledged in a private conference call with lawmakers last Friday that reopening the state would lead to a spike in coronavirus cases, but that the goal was never "to get transmission of COVID-19 down to zero."
During an hourlong call on the same day he partially reopened the state, the Republican governor told members of the state legislature and Congress that Texas will see an increase and spread in COVID-19 cases as the government begins to restart the economy by enabling hair salons, bars, and gyms to soon offer services to a limited number of customers.
BuzzFeed News obtained a recording of the entire call, which was first reported by the Quorum Report on Monday. About halfway through, Abbott reads a written question asking, "How do we know that reopening businesses won't result in the faster spread of COVID-19?"
It will, he answered.
"Listen, the fact of the matter is pretty much every scientific and medical report shows that whenever you have a reopening, whether you want to call it a reopening of businesses or of just a reopening of society, in the aftermath of something like this, it actually will lead to an increase and spread," he said. "It’s almost ipso facto. The more that you have people out there, the greater the possibility is for transmission."
Texas, which was reluctant to impose sweeping, statewide stay-at-home measures to thwart the spread of the coronavirus, has been one of the first states to allow businesses to reopen in a phased, limited capacity. Democrats have decried the decision as reckless and irresponsible, given that testing in the state is still lagging and coronavirus hot spots are still popping up.
The move comes with risks, the governor acknowledged in his call. He used daycares as an example, pointing out that children come from different home settings where a parent might be infected and could then spread it to other kids and teachers.
"The ease of transmission of it being so high the reason why doctors are so cautious about opening this up," he said. "That said, we fully comprehend how important this is to our workforce to open these up so we will continue to press onward swiftly and aggressively to open up daycares to nonessential workers."
However, he said later on, "the goal never has been to get transmission of COVID-19 down to zero. It never can be to keep transmission down to zero. There is always going to be, with a highly transmutable disease like this, a level of transmission."
On the call, the governor couched his decision to reopen more establishments at a faster rate than planned on data and metrics, such as hospitalizations, deaths, and the number of people who have tested positive and who have recovered.
Abbott has also changed his mind on waiting for data before lifting more restrictions. He had previously said he wanted to wait two weeks after phase one to see if that resulted in more serious flare-ups before letting more places open.
Citing a team of doctors, Abbott told lawmakers that the state had seen a decrease in recoveries and positive tests. However, on Tuesday, the number of coronavirus cases in the state rose to more than 33,420 and 948 people have died so far, the Texas Tribune reported.
Testing, especially in rural areas, is still far below the robust goal of more than 30,000 a day that Abbott wants to achieve. Public health experts and Democrats have cautioned that reopening aspects of society without proper time and data could result in an explosion of cases, especially in a state like Texas, where cases have been rising steadily.
Still, the governor has forged ahead with plans to allow residents to start going to nonessential businesses and public spaces, even moving up the date in some cases as Republicans across the state pushed for a faster return to normalcy. Restaurants, movie theaters, and malls were able to start up again at 25% capacity. Salons and pools can reopen Friday, while gyms, office buildings, and manufacturers can begin operations on May 18, though also at limited capacity and with sanitization requirements.
On Tuesday, while announcing a second wave of openings, Abbott said he and officials were prepared for flare-ups (like in construction workers) and have surge teams in place.
During the private Friday call, the governor said he was already preparing for a second-wave "as we speak" and stated that Texas has "an abundance of PPE" (personal protective equipment). The governor also addressed questions about overriding some local jurisdictions who said they would fine or arrest people who were not wearing masks, saying that they were still "strongly encouraging" people to wear masks because it is one of the ways to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus. However, he added that imposing a fine or a penalty would be "an issue of liberty and common sense."
Texas Democrats, meanwhile, have accused the Republicans of putting people's lives at risk for economic purposes.
"Republicans are not here to protect you or your family," Texas Democratic Party Executive Director Manny Garcia said in a statement. "Governor Abbott finally admitted that prematurely opening Texas is going to lead to more cases and more deaths."
When reached by BuzzFeed News, John Wittman, Abbott's communications director, countered that the governor has acknowledged "from the beginning" that reopening the state will lead to more flare-ups.
"As we begin to open up, we will see flare-ups, whether we open now or three months from now. The key is ensuring we are able to contain that spread, which is where contact tracing comes into play," he said, while also pointing to several past interviews in which the governor discussed how reopening in phases "may lead to some increase in the number of coronavirus cases."
Wittman also noted that California Gov. Gavin Newsom made similar comments about "possible community spread" as his state prepared to lift some stay-at-home restrictions in stages.
California, though, is moving at a slower pace than Texas and still keeping higher-risk workplaces, like hair salons, nail salons, gyms, churches, and movie theaters, closed.