PALO PINTO – Beginning Monday, Palo Pinto County businesses and facilities allowed to operate can do so at 50% capacity.

Palo Pinto County Judge Shane Long made the announcement late Thursday. The judge appealed last week to the Texas Department of State Health Services to let the county go from 25% operating capacities to 50% ahead of the governor's May 18 Phase II date based on the county having fewer than five active lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases.

On Thursday, the county reported just two active coronavirus cases with five recoveries since testing began in mid-March. The TDSHS now reports a second COVID-19-related death in the county, believed to be that of a Santo woman who was hospitalized with the illness before passing away.

"I am sorry for those cases that turned out that way and for their families," Long said of the deaths.

Restaurants, theaters and certain businesses were allowed to open last Friday at 25% capacities while adhering to specific health and safety protocols to protect employees and customers. Despite being forced to close their dining rooms, a number of restaurants continued serving customers with drive-through, take out or curbside service.

Despite the loosening last week of restrictions, not all restaurants re-opened their dining areas because of 25% capacity limitation. Even with 50% capacity beginning Monday, it is uncertain whether local restaurants still closed will reopen.

Gov. Greg Abbott this week allowed barbershops and hair and nail salons to reopen this Friday, though also under 25% capacity and other specific guidelines.

Long made application last week and this week received confirmation from the state health department the county could increase restaurant and allowed business capacities to 50% based on its active case numbers. Included are shopping malls, theaters, libraries and retail stores. Bars and gyms are among those not yet allowed to reopen.

Long said the capacity increase covers the entire county.

"I believe that is important for our businesses to give them the opportunity to begin to generate income for their families and their own livelihood," Long said. "Our numbers are good and our testing numbers are good."

As of Thursday, Palo Pinto General Hospital reported administering 367 tests for coronavirus with 334 negative test results, a 91 percent negative test rate. There were 23 hospital test results still pending.

Several conditions exist for the county to stay at the 50% capacity level, based on TDSHS guidelines. If any of the following happen, the county will go back to 25% business operating capacities:

1. Five consecutive testing/tracking intervals with positivity rates greater than 12% in that interval.

2. More than three positive cases per 1,000 residents.

3. Less than 15% of the surge capacity in hospitals for the catchment area available.

Concerning the first condition, Long explained that for five consecutive testing/tracking days, the number of confirmed positive cases cannot increase 12% each day. Any day during that interval with less than a 12% increase starts anew a consecutive five-day period.

With just nine positive cases after nearly two months of testing, Palo Pinto County has not come close to achieving that kind of positive case growth rate.

"The tough part with us is that our active cases are so low," Long said, meaning a 12% daily increase in cases would not be difficult to attain if there were a sudden local outbreak. "At the rate we are going that seems unlikely."

Long said there was consideration given to allow restaurants to go to 50% capacities this weekend – Sunday is Mother's Day – but he said officials believed it would be better to wait till Monday and give restaurants a chance to prepare for the higher capacities while implementing the required guidelines.

Local decisions have come as the result of consultations with elected officials, doctors and health facility executives and emergency management officials. They currently confer three days a week via teleconference.

Long specifically referred to advice and recommendations from county health advisor Dr. Ed Evans, City of Mineral Wells City Manager Randy Criswell and Mayor Tammy Underwood, Mineral Wells Emergency Management Coordinator/Fire Chief Mike Pool, Palo Pinto County Emergency Management Coordinator Mistie Moon and Palo Pinto General Hospital Chief Executive Officer Ross Korkmas.

"I didn't make this decision all on my own but the decision is my responsibility," said Long.

He said concerns have been expressed that increasing capacities could result in a rise in exposures and cases.

"There were some concerns about the potential of an increase but we felt like with the governor releasing more businesses, especially letting our cosmetology businesses beginning to operate, we felt it was time for Palo Pinto County to make this call," Long said.

The judge was asked what he would say to someone concerned the county is moving too fast.

"We would encourage Palo Pinto County residents who are concerned about their health, or a family member's health, to use all the precautions they feel keeps them safe," he said.

Personally, he said he was "comfortable" with the decision to move a week early allowing business operating capacities increase to 50%.

"I think we accomplished the original goal of flattening the curve," Long said. "I feel comfortable with the numbers in Palo Pinto County."

He said he believes keeping business closed or operating at limited capacities is doing more harm to county residents and the economy.

"I think as terrible as the coronavirus is health wise, our economies in Texas and across the United State are being devastated," Long said.

The judge added that businesses allowed to be open have the options to stay at 25% capacities or go to 50% beginning Monday – or remain closed if they choose.

"None of this is mandatory," Long said. "It is an option for them at this point to move to the 50% capacity."

He said he and other county officials urge all residents continue to follow the CDC and state health guidelines and remain socially distant, wash hands frequently, avoid touching your face and sanitize surfaces and consider wearing facial protection when shopping or working.

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