Texas counties with low COVID-19 case count weigh opening businesses at 25% or 50%

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FREDERICKSBURG, Texas (Nexstar) — The normally busy sidewalks in Fredericksburg are abandoned, awaiting the shoppers and eaters who used to frequent well-known Main Street.

The road traffic has stayed steady with drivers passing through, but the foot traffic is almost entirely gone. Anxious business owners hope that changes when they’re allowed to reopen at reduced capacity.

“I’m gonna open up a few seating areas to see if we get any takers,” said John Dubey, owner of Clear River Pecan Company, a deli and bakery staple on Main Street for three decades.

empty store chairs
Stacked chairs fill the Clear River Pecan Company in Fredericksburg, Texas, on April 28, 2020. The store’s owner plans to open for dine-in at reduced capacity on May 1. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

“Are people going to want to come in to an establishment and how long will it be before they feel comfortable coming back in?” Dubey questioned. “Of course we’re going to do our part sanitize everything and have the tables six feet apart and we’re going to give it a try and see what happens.”

The relaxed rules crafted by Gov. Abbott and his team of advisers take effect Friday, allowing retailers, restaurants, movie theaters and museums to reopen at 25% occupancy.

In rural counties with five or fewer cases, businesses have the opportunity to open at 50% capacity. The county’s judge must submit a form to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The county judges must affirm the following standards:

  1. The county had five or fewer COVID-19 laboratory confirmed cases on April 30, 2020 or, at a later date, five or fewer active COVID-19 cases as verified by DSHS
  2. The county has created a list of testing opportunities in the county or the area
  3. The county has been in contact with its designated regional advisory council to ensure the community is prepared for any needed health care transfers
  4. The county has provided public notice to the residents of the county, including:
     Signs and symptoms of COVID-19
     Recommended health and safety protocols in line with CDC guidance
     Information regarding how residents can get tested in the area
     A link to the DSHS website where residents can go to learn about community spread in nearby communities, in order to help county residents understand their risk to exposure if they travel regularly outside of the county
  5. The county has contacted each of the following types of facilities located in the county to ensure they
    are complying with HHSC and CDC guidelines regarding COVID-19:
     Nursing homes
     Assisted living facilities
     Industrial, agricultural, or business facilities with a significant number of employees
     City or county jails
  6. The county is equipped and prepared to protect vulnerable populations, including nursing homes and assisted living facilities
  7. The county has documented procedures to be activated if a resident becomes COVID-19 positive, including procedures to take appropriate measures as necessary in line with the plan to open Texas
  8. The county has contacted DSHS in order to create a plan to ensure contact tracing will occur within 48 hours of a positive test reported to DSHS

In Gillespie County, where Fredericksburg is the county seat, County Judge Mark Stroeher said he was not prepared to submit the documents to the state health department this week that would allow the county to expand business openings to 50%.

“I’d want to make sure the city was in favor of allowing that increased flexibility and operating capacity,” Stroeher said by phone on Tuesday. He anticipated broad support, but has not had the formal conversations about initiating those steps, he said.

Stroeher also said he believed the county had met some of the listed requirements, but not all. He said he expected the county would be able to accomplish those benchmarks in the next few days.

“We have to see where we are on the 30th,” he said.

Hill County Outfitters has been closed since March 15. Owner Mary Ann Turbeville can’t wait to see her loyal local customers again. The brick and mortar store has no online sales options, so her customers in the area provide her a sense of community— and cash flow.

Mary Ann Turbeville, owner of Hill Country Outfitters in Fredericksburg, Texas, looks at a blouse she hopes to sell in her store on April 28, 2020. The brick and mortar shop closed on March 15 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Turbeville plans to reopen at reduced capacity on May 1. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

“The last thing that we want to do is open and then have to close our doors again,” she said. “So the responsibility is on us to make sure that the environment is as as safe as we can make it for everyone involved.”

Turbeville is providing masks for customers who request one, and has hand sanitizer available for staff and shoppers. She will also closely monitor total occupancy.

“If we need to close our doors or stop people from coming in, that’s what we’re going to do,” she said.

While Turbeville admits there are a few business owners who would rather not see tourists return and bring COVID-19 with them, said she can’t afford the economic loss.

“We have taken a tremendous hit financially,” she said, adding that the small business loan she received from the federal government “barely” covers basic costs.

Dubey hopes tourists return with a few new rules that are top of mind.

“Stay safe, follow the guidelines, you know, use common sense, and I think we’ll all be okay,” he said.

Counties that file the paperwork with the state and qualify for the increased occupancy will revert back to the reduced occupancy if any of the following situations occur:

  1. Five consecutive testing/tracking intervals with positivity rates greater than 12% in that interval
  2. The county has more than three positive cases per 1,000 residents
  3. Less than 15% of the surge capacity in hospitals for the catchment area is available

Gov. Abbott said the next phase of expanding business operations in the state could come as early as May 18 if there are no flare-ups of the virus.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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