State Sen. Rodríguez: Texas at “critical point” in coronavirus fight (Opinion)

Texas has reached a critical point in the fight against COVID-19. State leaders continue to reduce restrictions on movement and activity, even though we haven’t come close to a 14-day decline in new cases – the benchmark recommended by the Centers for Disease Control before reopening the economy. In fact, for the past few weeks, there have been more than 1,000 new cases per day on average.

Yet Gov. Abbott, prodded by a Republican right that is turning mask wearing into another front in their “culture war,” is proceeding to roll back the protocols that have kept Texans safer, risking further outbreaks, and setting a tone that fails to meet the urgency of our times. Fewer people are staying home, observing social distancing, or wearing face coverings in public.

Meanwhile, local officials, trying to do right by their communities, have been prohibited by the governor from taking proven preventive measures such as requiring masks in public or limiting business openings beyond what he decides is best. I appreciate that the governor delayed Phase II for El Paso County until Friday, May 29. However, the reprieve is short-lived. By limiting the delay to one week, the governor is ignoring the very metrics his Open Texas Plan references. For example: rolling back openings if there’s an increase in the number of new cases for five days or more. Or taking into account whether our hospitalization rate, which has been steadily increasing, is actually declining before May 29.

And it’s not just El Paso that isn’t meeting the benchmarks laid out in the governor’s Open Texas Plan. When the plan was announced, the governor’s goal for May was 30,000 tests per day. To date, the state has met that goal only a handful of times. Aside from that, according to health experts, we need at least 45,000 tests per day before we can reopen safely.

Another benchmark in the plan is to set up adequate contact tracing. The governor’s goal was to have 4,000 contact tracers in place before the end of May. To date, the state has half that number. Furthermore, health experts estimate we need closer to 7,700 contact tracers to effectively identify and contain new infections as we reopen. Robust contact tracing is the key to preventing outbreaks and another shutdown.

Nonetheless, state leaders are moving forward. It is disappointing that they have prioritized economic activity over public health. This is a false choice. The key to a thriving economy is a strong, healthy workforce.

We must make sure workers are protected. As more businesses open, many don’t have the ability to provide face coverings, gloves, or the physical space to ensure distancing. Unfortunately, these workers are put in a position where they have to choose between a paycheck and their family’s health.

The essential workers who keep food on our tables, build our homes and fix our roads are the most vulnerable to these political decisions. Many essential workers are also minorities; communities of color are suffering the most from COVID-19. The national data increasingly shows Latinos and African Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, with more hospitalizations and deaths.

By removing the restrictions on businesses, the governor also is removing the safety net of unemployment insurance from people who would otherwise choose to stay home to safely distance themselves from the virus.

This is par for the course. Session after session, the Texas legislature has shown it values big money over individual lives, whether it’s failing to hold polluters accountable for harmful emissions, or refusing to provide health insurance for the working poor by expanding Medicaid.

Instead, the attorney general is suing to dismantle the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, which provides health care to millions of Americans. This is the same Affordable Care Act that Senator Cornyn directed Texans who have recently lost their jobs to sign up with for health insurance.

Meanwhile, the governor is gambling that the lives lost from opening prematurely will be offset by the money made in this “rebounded” economy. State leaders are even going as far as urging Congress to enact liability protections for businesses from COVID-related lawsuits. This begs the question – if it’s safe enough to reopen, then why do we need to give businesses blanket immunity if someone gets sick or dies because they didn’t take the necessary precautions?

The old “normal” isn’t good enough. To ensure we recover from this pandemic, state leaders should follow the advice of health experts, not political consultants or polls. The full well-being of workers, the basis for Texas’ wealth and health, finally must be a public policy priority.

Sen. Rodríguez represents Texas Senate District 29, which is comprised of the counties of El Paso, Culberson, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis, and Presidio.