Texas Legislators Blindsided by Gov. Greg Abbott's Decision to Re-Open Salons and Gyms

Gage Skidmore
Greg Abbott
Texas lawmakers say they were caught off guard by Gov. Greg Abbott's order last week opening beauty salons, adding that the surprise announcement shows an increasing lack of transparency about the governor's plans to reopen the state.

"We absolutely felt blindsided," said State Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, who added that the May 5 order by Abbott, a Republican, also caught legislators of his own party off guard.

The order, unveiled during an afternoon press briefing, also allowed gyms to reopen. Lawmakers including Zwiener said they were aware the briefing had been scheduled but received no advance notice about its nature.

"It just seems like decisions are being made in an increasingly insular way, which concerns me," Zwiener said. "There's been a lack of transparency about how the reopening is being handled."

Abbott's office was unavailable for comment on this story.

Prior to the briefing, the governor had never given a specific date for the reopening of salons and gyms. However, late last month, when he announced he'd let restaurants and retailers resume business on a limited capacity at the start of May, Abbott said a second round of business openings would take effect May 18.

Lawmakers including Zwiener said they anticipated salon reopening would happen in conjunction with the second phase of the governor's reopening plan. That way, the governor's task force would have enough time to examine data on whether the first round had caused a spike in coronavirus transmissions.

Instead, salons and gyms were cleared to open less than a week after the initial round went into effect.

"Well so much for communicating with us and for reopening in phases two weeks apart," Zwiener tweeted following Abbott's May 5 briefing.

Allowing salons and gyms to reopen so soon doesn't let health experts gauge the effect of the first round of openings, said Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio.

While Bernal said he was surprised by the governor's May 5 announcement, he's more concerned about the potential health repercussions of its timing.

"I'm less interested in the courtesy part of it than I am the science and safety part of it," Bernal added.

Bernal tweeted his frustration, saying that not waiting for more data before reopening salons "signals to the public that it's safe, that the worst is over." He continued: "We don't know that, and shouldn't act like it."

Bernal said Abbott appears to be caving to pressure from the far right, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, to rush toward reopening. Twice during Fox News appearances, Patrick has argued that elderly people should be willing to risk contracting COVID-19 to aid the economy.

During his two most recent phone calls with the legislature, the governor has declined to answer direct questions, instead asking lawmakers to submit them in advance. That suggests Abbott is unwilling to face scrutiny about his decisions, Bernal said.

Abbott has faced criticism for the state's slow rollout of testing. What's more, on a May 1 call with lawmakers, Abbott was caught on tape saying that the reopening of business would lead to an increase of COVID-19 infections — something he's not stated publicly.

Bernal said he worries Abbott's inability to ramp up testing and wait for better data before charging ahead with reopening puts Texans at risk and could force a second economic shutdown.

"I'd love to be wrong about this, and if I am I'll admit it," Bernal said. "But, right now, we need the numbers to direct what we do."

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