Abbott relaxing rules stirs fear of another COVID-19 spike

While debate rages over the timing of Gov. Abbott's move to end Texas COVID-19 mandates, leaders say they fear more infections and deaths.

Video Transcript

MELANIE LAWSON: Good evening, everybody. I'm Melanie Lawson, along with my colleague Ted Oberg, we are so glad you are joining us this evening. Welcome to tonight's town hall, "Action 13-- Reopening Texas." It is a really sad coincidence, but it has been exactly one year ago that the first Texan was diagnosed with the coronavirus. Little did we know what was to come next. And for most of the past year, our state has been closed or restricted in so many arenas-- businesses, schools, sports and entertainment venues, even houses of worship. We've had more than 2.3 million Texans get the virus, and we've lost nearly 44,000 of our neighbors and loved ones to COVID. 5,200 of those right here, in Harris County. We're also finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. Some 13%, or nearly four million, in our state have been vaccinated. And there are several "super sites" in Texas, including here in Houston, that are giving out 6,000 shots a day. That's a great bit of news.

So that's the backdrop for the surprise announcement by Governor Abbott, on Tuesday, that he was fully reopening the state starting next Wednesday. First, we want to hear the Governor's statement, followed by an immediate reaction from the President and Dr. Fauci.

GOVERNOR GREG ABBOT: Effective next Wednesday, all businesses, of any type, are allowed to open 100%. Also, I am ending the statewide mask mandate.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And the last thing-- the last thing we need is the Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything's fine. Take off your mask, forget it.

ANTHONY FAUCI: I don't know why they're doing it, but it certainly-- from a public health standpoint-- is ill advised.

MELANIE LAWSON: Well, we're going to jump into our conversation right now. But first, I do want to introduce you to our panel. Joining us tonight-- Mayor Sylvester Turner, mayor of the city of Houston. State Senator Paul Bettencourt. County Judge KP George, of Fort Bend County. County Judge Mark Keough, in Montgomery County. Dr. Joseph Varon, United Memorial Medical Center-- chief medical officer, there. Dr. Emily Williams Knight, with the Texas Restaurant Association, She is the CEO. Scott McClelland, who is president of HEB. And Dr. Timothy Sloan, pastor-- senior pastor-- of The Luke Church. And I want to welcome all of you all here, tonight. We appreciate you so much.

We should mention, we've got a lot of important guests. Some may be able to stay the entire hour, some may have to sneak out a bit early. So we will give you permission to do so, and we appreciate you, certainly, so much.

Now Mayor, I want to begin with you. You know the numbers for Houston, and the surrounding area. You know we are close to 9% positivity. And you've made it pretty clear that we should continue wearing masks for a while longer, and gradually reopen. But did the Governor essentially take away your authority to maintain those kinds of things? And what is your next step?

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: Well, the authority was taken away from local government back towards the end of April of last year. The reality is that the positivity rate in the city of Houston is right around 11.8%. We still have-- like today, I am reporting 893 people who have contracted the virus. And 11 people who have died, as of today. I can't recall the last time when I reported-- when there were not any cases of people getting the virus, and people dying. This virus is still prevalent. We are the only city, at this point, where all five of the strains are existing. In the city of Houston, all five of them. So it is far too soon to just open up everything 100%. And then, on top of that, to say you don't have to wear the mask.

MELANIE LAWSON: So what do you do?

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: Well, essentially, you still encourage people to wear their masks. For city facilities, for example, and venues, you will still be required to wear your mask. For the roughly 22,000 city employees, you will still be mandated to wear your mask. I certainly appreciate many of the businesses-- in the Houston community, and across the state-- who are saying to their employees that you will wear your mask, and certainly encouraging their patrons-- their customers-- to do that as well. And then you just have to continue to listen to the doctors, to the science, to the medical professionals, and do everything you can to get tested, and to get this vaccine as quickly as you can.

MELANIE LAWSON: And what do you say, Mayor, to a lot of Houstonians out there who are pleased by this decision, feeling as though at least it turns around the economy for them?

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: Well, there are some who are. And then, there are many others who are not. The reality is that yes, we've been at this-- dealing with this virus-- for almost one year. It was a year ago, tomorrow, when we made the announcement with regards to some of our conventions and conferences that would no longer be meeting. So it's been a long, protracted period of time. But what I say to people is that it's important to be patient. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. There are three vaccines that are now available. And so we are moving, as quickly as possible, to get first these vaccines in people's arms. As quickly as possible.

But people are still dying because of this virus. And people are still getting this-- contracting this virus. And you can still spread it to a lot of people. And you could be asymptomatic. Let me just close with this-- I can only imagine next week-- Thursday, Friday, Saturday-- clubs and bars are going to be jam packed. And they are not going to be wearing their masks. And they're going to leave those establishments, and they're going to someone's home. Be around someone's parents, or grandparents, family members, and friends. And they will not have gotten the vaccine. Roughly 90% of Texans have not been fully vaccinated in the state of Texas.

So we may be tired of the virus, OK? But the virus-- as someone has said-- the virus is certainly not tired of us. If you give it an opportunity to spread, it will spread. People will get it, and people will die. And many people will die, and it would not have had to be the case. The crisis, and what we are dealing with, is foreseeable and preventable. And it was simply too early to say 100%, and no masks required. Too soon, too early, and it is life threatening.

MELANIE LAWSON: I turned over to Ted, now.

TED OBERG: Judge Keough, in Montgomery County you're neighbors with the Mayor. The virus is obviously no stranger to Montgomery County, either, where recently we ran a story that so many people were concerned about it-- and getting their vaccines-- that it caused traffic issues, and the vaccination side had to be relocated. But your feeling on the Governor's decision is obviously different than Mayor Turner's?

JUDGE MARK KEOUGH: Right, yes.

TED OBERG: Why do you think this will help? And why is it the right time to do it now?

JUDGE MARK KEOUGH: Well, the Governor came out with the whole issue of personal responsibility. And he talked about that for a little bit, about how he's leaving it up to the people to make the decision. We know here, in Montgomery County, we've done that from the very beginning. Two weeks into our stay-at-home order, I saw that the numbers-- as they were coming out-- were not even in the same universe as what we were told they were going to be. And so, as I began to watch that, we came off of our stay-at-home order. But we continued to press for people to follow CDC guidelines. To wear masks when they would go into crowds. And to constantly practicing personal hygiene. To social distance, as needed. If they were sick, stay home. And we left it up to the people. And the fact of the matter is, is that the numbers in Montgomery County are pretty strong as it relates to infections.

But recoveries-- I'm looking at, and constantly looking at, what is the recovery rate? Recovery rate continues to be-- whether we're open, whether we're closed, whether we're partially open, whether we have a mask mandate, whether we don't have a mask mandate-- recovery rate is 99.5%. And it never changes. It's amazing. I've watched it all year long, and it just doesn't change. So from that perspective, people are COVID-weary. Businesses are weary. I think the Governor made a wise decision. And I think it's time for the people to govern themselves, as it relates to masks or whatever.

TED OBERG: If I could-- if I could just push back, for just a second. Some of this is about the moral message that government leaders present, right? We understand the enforcement of this-- and I think a lot of us will have this discussion tonight-- the enforcement of this is not severe. Few people, if any, have been arrested or detained for not wearing a mask. But does it send the wrong message when the highest leaders in our state say it's OK not to wear a mask, if you don't feel like it? There's no health expert that says that.

JUDGE MARK KEOUGH: Well the fact of the matter is, is that when you say talk about a moral message-- what's moral about enforcing something that is not even legally allowed to take place? The Governor, he came out early on, said you can't arrest, you can't detain. And then he turned right around and he then came out with a mask mandate, where first was a warning, second was a fine. And the fact of the matter is, is that that's why the sheriffs all over Texas said no, we can't do that. We can't arrest, we can't detain. I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that people-- at least in Montgomery County, I go all over the place-- everywhere I go, whether it's HEB, Scott. Whether it's-- whether it's in the big box stores. People all over the place are wearing masks. They've been listening, and they have been using good hygiene. And they've been social distancing. And I mean, I see this all over the place. And the numbers are strong.

TED OBERG: Mel?

MELANIE LAWSON: Well, I was going to ask County Judge George the same thing. We've got spring break coming up. And we all remember what happened last year, after spring break. We saw surges. Also after most of the major holidays, where people were allowed to gather and spend time. Do you have a plan for that? Are you are you thinking already about what you're going to do? Fort Bend is one of the largest and most diverse counties, and growing faster than almost any other county in the country. How do you get the message out to people that it's not all over?

I don't believe you've got your mic on, Judge. Judge George, you might want to unmute yourself.

JUDGE KP GEORGE: Thank you. Thank you for that question, I appreciate it. And I'm thankful I am on this panel. And Fort Bend County is where today, a year ago, the first case in the state of Texas was reported. And we came a long way, we came a long way. And in that process-- I tell you, I'm going to be very honest with-- one of the biggest problems was not coronavirus. The biggest problem, for me, was the politics attached to it. And I remember this-- in May, when the Governor opened up the state, and my HHS director said this is a wrong move. And it happened after Memorial Day weekend. We had-- June 14, we had 2,402 cases. And four to six weeks later, it was 8,000. So we could talk all day about, you know, this "I don't believe in it," or this, or that.

And I am very concerned about what happened a couple of days ago. And I honestly believe the Governor shouldn't have done this, and should have waited a little bit. And so we already started convening what to do. And so we realized, I'm advised, I cannot ask people to wear a mask, even when they are coming to the county facilities. That's what I've been told. So the county employees need to wear masks, but we are going to put-- we are going to send the message that we strongly, strongly encourage wearing masks. And the mask wearing works! And I'm thinking last two, three months, there was no problem about people wearing masks. And I agree with many people are saying, here. You know, most of the places people are using masks.

But the last two days, after this message, I tell you-- my voicemail is full of hate. Messages. And I'm getting emails left and right, who don't even think about this and that and all that stuff. And I'm so disappointed about this decision. But I know that I believe in our state, I believe in our country, I believe in my county. We will prevail. And so we are working to send out more public announcement messages, so that I'm-- at this point, I'm putting my trust in my people.

MELANIE LAWSON: And what kind of hate mail are you getting? What are people saying?

JUDGE KP GEORGE: And so there are some messages saying that "you heard that, right? So don't even think about changing anything." And you know this is-- then it goes on. And there are a number of them. And so it is sad. And I honestly believe it was kind of dying out. The Governor open a whole new can of worms. And that's what it looked like. I'm so sad. I'm very disappointed.

MELANIE LAWSON: Senator Bettencourt, I want to bring you in right now. You're a Republican. You've just heard Judge George say this was a political decision. And we know early on there were battles over maps, that sort of fell along party lines. What are you hearing from some of your constituents?

PAUL BETTENCOURT: Melanie, that's a good question. Because the real question is, where do we go forward from here? Because this order takes effect next week. On My Facebook post, and everybody can see it at paulbettencourt.com, the reactions are actually 18 to 1 positive. The comments are 62% positive, 20% negative, and the other undecided. And really depends on what your view of this is. Because really, what Governor Abbott's order is, is a step to normalcy in the state. And just quoting some figures from his press conference, you said almost 2.5 million people that are lab confirmed that have now recovered. The CDC says the real number would be actually four to five times higher. So he's estimating-- through his two medical experts, that he obviously worked with-- that over 10 million Texans have actually recovered from it. So you combine that with where we are to vaccinations, and you've got over half of Texans that can beat the disease.

And that's really what his order is about. This is about personal responsibility. I don't expect the downtown businesses to be loaded with tens of thousands of people in the morning. I don't expect the school systems to be changing their position immediately. But I think, individually, business owners will make the decision for their employees and their customers what to do. And on behalf-- I can tell you in the Texas Senate, we are going to continue to be testing-- at least, I believe we are-- testing all the members for COVID. All the staff. And that's what we've been doing through this crisis, since the legislature met, to make sure that we can take our mask off on the floor. Because we're testing everyone, and I think that's going to continue.

So we just have to make the right decisions, do personal responsibility, and take the right steps.

TED OBERG: But-- but Senator--

PAUL BETTENCOURT: We're going to beat COVID.

TED OBERG: And I know you well enough that-- I hope you know me well enough that-- not to come off as mean, don't you see the double standard in that? That for me to come see you on the floor of the Texas Senate, I have to have a negative COVID test.

PAUL BETTENCOURT: OK, well--

TED OBERG: Or to get into the Governor's office, I have to have a negative COVID test. And yet, for the rest of Texans we don't. No testing, no mask required. Isn't that a double standard?

PAUL BETTENCOURT: Well, first off Ted-- we're doing over 100,000 tests a day. And our vaccination levels are rapidly increasing. And we're expecting about seven million, by next week. So part of this is, look to the future of where-- where Texas needs to go as a-- as an economic society, as well as a cultural society. And part of that makes that decision very obvious. Because we do need to open up Texas, but again this order is very nuanced. OK? It's being thrown around like it's--

TED OBERG: Now, come on. Come on--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

PAUL BETTENCOURT: I'm going to come back at you right now.

TED OBERG: Is it a double standard, or not?

PAUL BETTENCOURT: No, it's not! It's-- its not. He's encouraging people to take-- to wear a mask. He's also said, KP George, if his-- if his a hospitalization rate goes up to 15%, he can take action. So this is not just a-- just not-- just a giant red meat that you're picking up at a steak house. It's far more nuanced than that. So read the order, and that's at paulbettencourt.com too.

MELANIE LAWSON: All Right.

TED OBERG: Look, can I ask--

MELANIE LAWSON: No, go ahead Ted.

TED OBERG: I'm sorry. I think we've talked a little bit about the fact that now businesses can all choose for themselves. And Mr. McClelland, you obviously have stores in the vast majority of Texas. How do you tell your employees how to manage this? And what will you tell your customers about how to handle this?

SCOTT MCCLELLAND: Sure. Well no doubt, when there was a mandate it certainly set an expectation for customers, around what they were supposed to do. And it also provided a backdrop for the ability for cities and counties to act. So without that, obviously, then the enforcement of it falls down onto store level. And it should be, really, nothing will change in terms of how we're looking to manage this, going forward.

We have always had a high expectation that customers-- and have expected our customers to wear masks. We require our employees and our vendors to wear masks, when they're in the store. And I think at this point, what we're having to rely on is the goodwill of Texans to look out for each other and be willing to do it. Where this could get very difficult is if you find that there is mask noncompliance, as people come into stores, and people no longer feel safe. We will continue to offer customers masks, who don't have them as they come into the store. Our expectation falls along those lines. But it does put all retailers, not just HEB, in a challenging position.

MELANIE LAWSON: But as I understand it, Mr. McClelland, you've had some belligerent incidents in some of your stories that were masked. First of all, how many? Because I think I was shocked when you told me the number. But secondly, what do you do now when somebody wants to get into a fist fight about whether or not to wear a mask?

SCOTT MCCLELLAND: Yeah. That's a good question, Melanie. So over the course of the last year-- in our Houston division, which is 100 stores-- we've had 2,000 incidents where we've either had to involve security, or store management, to take care of them. Because a customer either refused to wear a mask, or another customer confronted-- and begin to get physical with-- a customer who refused to wear a mask. And so there is a fine line that one has to walk, in between making sure people are safe from COVID, but also making sure that you look out for the physical safety of other customers and our employees who work at a store. And this is one of the challenges that's associated-- there has not been, Melanie, a more challenging issue since this COVID-19 virus began a year ago than dealing with masks. We dealt with it last March, last April, and now here we come around and we're dealing with it again.

MELANIE LAWSON: So what are you telling your customers, now? And I have to mention that we asked for questions, and I got this big stack. In fact, this is only a portion of it. But one question came up several times, and I want to put that towards you particularly. And it says, "Ask Mr. McClelland why HEB is not enforcing mask mandates for customers." Another person says, "Since businesses can decide, why is it he's going to allow some shoppers not to wear masks?" What's the answer?

SCOTT MCCLELLAND: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. So just as we have, prior to the mask mandate changing, that our expectation has been customers will wear masks. If you don't wear a mask in the store, we will ask you to put one on. If you say you don't have one, we will offer to give you one. But if a customer begins to get belligerent, and potentially violent, at that point in time-- because I can't risk the safety of the employees in the store-- they will stand down.

MELANIE LAWSON: Thank you. Ted?

TED OBERG: Well, is that unfair? I mean, I want to get to the-- all politics is personal. And to you as well, Doctor Knight-- we are now putting the onus on younger Texans, without as much authority, to really enforce what is the will of a business owner. And Mr. McClelland, it is that an unfair burden for your folks? For your team?

SCOTT MCCLELLAND: Yeah. Ted, I think that's a fair question. It's because we don't have the backstop of the police to be able to come in and help us, at this point in time. Because there are no repercussions for doing it. So you're asking a 19-year-old, or a 70-year-old, or someone in between then to act in that capacity. What we're really relying on, frankly, is the goodwill of the people to do what is needed.

Unfortunately, because this is such a polarized issue within the state, people fall on both sides. We do know this-- as the CDC says, it's wise to wear two masks. And now in the state, we have a situation where we're saying well, if you don't want to wear a mask you don't have to. The reality is, there are two things that can help a lot. Get a vaccine as soon as you can, and wear a mask. There is a light on the horizon, as the Mayor said. At some point in time, we will get through this. But it's going to take the collective effort of all Texans, working together and looking out for each other.

TED OBERG: And Doctor Knight, can I ask you that question as well? The onus now comes to hosts, and hostesses, and bartenders, and servers, and I wonder if that is a fair burden for your members to now bear.

EMILY WILLIAMS KNIGHT: Yeah. First, I'm going to just really echo what Scott said, which is this is a partnership. And it has been from the start, for us. And so, if you think about an industry that has sort of taken it on the chin since the day it started. Running at reduced capacity, trying to feed people-- I think this last storm we had, we saw the role restaurants play in making sure Texans are cared for. And so for us, I think we did two things. And I think I have some good news for everyone. We immediately polled our members. The announcement came out, we knew we needed to-- we thought what the answer was, right? Where this conversation was going to go. I'm with Scott, it's fatiguing. It's amazing, I've spent 48 hours talking about masks. But it came back, almost 74% of our members said we will keep our employees in masks. Right? It was very important to them.

I think something we did early on, and we just released it again tonight to all of our restaurant members across the state, is we created a restaurant promise. And that's guidelines that we recommend restaurants follow, to keep people-- their customers and employees-- safe. And there's two sides of that. There's a commitment that the restaurant has, and there's our commitment that you have, as a customer, when you walk in. And you make a promise that restaurant that you'll abide by. So releasing that again today-- I'm so proud of our members. And I asked citizens-- and the Mayor's has been a great support to our industry from the start is-- look for the Texas Restaurant Promise. That means that that particular institution is making sure that their employees are masks, and the suggestion is that you keep your mask on until you sit down.

There is no way to get through this if we cannot work together. Absolutely no way. And that's really the goal of the promise, and what we've wanted for our industry all along. And, frankly, really good partnerships with so many of the folks here, that I only met when the crisis started.

TED OBERG: Can you help me figure out, Dr. Knight-- the move from 75% occupancy, for a restaurant or bar, to 100%-- will that save some businesses? Are there enough businesses that have suffered, and had to turn people away at 75% in today's environment, that this truly will save some Texas businesses?

EMILY WILLIAMS KNIGHT: You can't look at capacity in isolation. What's going to save these businesses is the federal relief that's coming down. A second bill, that's targeted $25 billion just to restaurants. That's going to be a significant-- we need to get that over the line. And vaccines, we are definitely seeing as we have, I think, 200,000 get vaccinated yesterday. We are working really hard to make sure that our restaurant workers, especially now, are in that next round. But we are seeing-- as people are starting to get vaccinated, they are coming out. Our weather's improving, our patios are bustling. And we're making that turn. So it's not just capacity, it's definitely all these pieces coming together, finally, for restaurants.

MELANIE LAWSON: I wanted to ask the Mayor another question, if I could. Mayor, I know that you disagree with what the Governor did. But is it as much about the timing as anything else? Or do you just feel as though, at this point, he's tied your hands in the hands of so many other Mayors and County Judges?

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: Well, there is no question that our hands have been tied. And they've been tied for quite some time. But the reality is, is that over 500,000 people have lost their lives to this virus across the United States. Nearly 45,000 Texans have lost their lives. Nearly 2000 Houstonians have lost their lives. The positivity rate is still too high. And it is about the timing. What President Biden has said is that by the end of May, anybody who wants a vaccine in the state of Texas-- and in the United States-- can get a vaccine. So what is the problem with having people maintaining the mask order for a couple of more months at least? And waiting until those vaccines are made readily available.

The other point that I would say to you, and I know people have been talking about personal responsibility-- well look, we tell people not to speed, but yet we have cops out there to give them a ticket. Because we know that a lot of people are going to speed. And so, when we are talking about a situation where we know that until people are fully vaccinated, the one protection that can help save lives is the wearing of these masks. Until you get fully vaccinated, this is your protection. It protects you, and it protects others. And 40% of the people that are walking around here do not have symptoms. There are no signs, but they can spread it.

And then when people get this virus, and they don't have access to adequate, affordable health care-- then look at the people who are disproportionately impacted. And the reality is, more people are going to get this virus. And more people are going to die. And that would not be the case.

And then lastly, what I will say-- for many of us, OK, you're not going to come to City Hall without being screened. And then without, in many cases, having been tested. You're not going to go to the State Capital without being tested. You're not! You're not! You're not going to be walking around legislators and senators, and the Governor, and the Mayors, without least your masks on and being tested or being vaccinated. But the vast majority of people-- across the state of Texas, in the city of Houston-- they're going to be going to restaurants. They're going to be going to bars and clubs. They're going to be in close proximity with one another. They will not have been fully vaccinated. They're not going to have their masks on. This virus is going to attach to them, and they are going to carry this virus to other people. Family members and friends. It doesn't have to be this case.

Finally, I ask you this--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: Finally, let me just say this.

MELANIE LAWSON: Yeah, go ahead. You can make your final point.

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: If the governor wanted to open up the state 100%, OK. We're already have 75%, open it up to 100%. But maintain the requirement for people to wear their mask. Maintain that requirement. What he has done is going to create chaos, confusion, and conflicts. In HEBs, in your Krogers, in your other businesses, in restaurants. It creates chaos, conflict, and confusion.

MELANIE LAWSON: Although Ted had a chance to interview him live today, on the air, and he said he will continue to wear his mask. And he expects that many Texans will. But the COVID is really a two-headed monster in a real way. Obviously, the health crisis. But it's also had a horrific impact on the economy, Mayor, at this point. How do you balance the two? And is there some silver lining here, in that many restaurants, and stores, and businesses will now be able to reopen?

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: And it is a delicate balance. And I want businesses to remain open. And we have worked very closely with the Texas Restaurant Association, both at the state level and at the city level. We never shut down the construction industry, when it comes to residential or commercial construction. It has always stayed open. Essential businesses have always stayed open. It is important for there to be a delicate balance. And quite frankly, all of this national confusion that's coming out of Texas, across the country, doesn't help businesses either. It doesn't help our image. It doesn't help businesses, OK?

And so I want businesses to stay open. I don't want one business-- I don't want a small business to close its doors. I don't want one restaurant to close its doors. There's a way to strike a healthy balance, without going all the way. And again, and what I would say to the Governor-- if you want to open the state of Texas up 100%-- OK, fine. I'll go with you on that. But maintain the mask order. Just maintain that.

Now that we know that there are three vaccines, probably others that will be coming. And by the end of May, there'll be enough vaccines across the country for everybody to get a vaccine if they want it.

MELANIE LAWSON: Ted?

TED OBERG: Dr. Varon, can I ask you about the science of this? You have very personally put hands on so many of these patients, and our neighbors who are suffering.

JOSEPH VARON: Well, I mean-- Yeah, go ahead.

TED OBERG: No, no, no, go ahead. Go ahead.

JOSEPH VARON: You know, I'm actually-- you know, I keep on listening to all of you guys. And now I know why I'm not a politician. But one thing that I will tell you, I mean what-- I'm going to call him Dr. Turner, because he really has become a doctor-- Mayor Turner, really-- he is right. There are so many things that we know about the virus, but also so many things that we don't know. The science is very clear-- if I wear my mask, I protect you more than protecting myself. If I wear a mask, and you are not using a mask, I still have a huge chance of getting the illness. That's why I feel so confused by this order, because you just need one person that doesn't listen. And, let's say, walks into HEB and starts coughing. And spreads a nasty illness.

Now, the other thing that's important from a science standpoint-- yes, we have three vaccines. I see the happiness of Mayor Turner, because we're going to get them here. But the fact is, we don't know if those three vaccines are going to cover some of these variants. You know, the California variant and the New York variant are actually pretty contagious. They are getting a little bit out of hand. And we don't know if they are going to cover them. So how can I tell people you may or may not want to use your mask, when I don't know if I can actually even protect you?

I think we all have a-- you guys we're talking about moral, I think it's a social responsibility. And it's a social responsibility that we all have to have. If I was to talk to the Governor, I would tell him "Please, you want to open. I understand the economy, but as a doctor-- as a scientist-- I beg you to ask everybody to please wear a mask." Because you just need one person not to wear a mask, and going to a place where others may be wearing the mask, and you are going to get in trouble.

I mean, I definitely agree with what Scott was saying. I mean, he's going to be offering masks and stuff like that. I mean, something like "No shoes, no shirt, no service." I think we need to do the same. "No mask, no service." End of story.

TED OBERG: Take me inside your inbox, or your Facebook feed-- how many health experts, in the last two days, have told you they support what Texas Governor Abbott did?

SCOTT MCCLELLAND: Not a single one. And I mean-- and you have no idea the number of WhatsApp messages, or Facebook messages. Everybody telling me what's wrong with the Mayor-- not with the Mayor, I'm sorry, with the Governor. And I do understand the Governor. I respect the fact that we want to boost the economy, open up. That's awesome, but let's do it-- you know, let's compromise. Let's meet somewhere in between. Just like Mayor Turner was saying a few minutes ago, the fact that we're going to have the three vaccines-- the fact that we're going to kind of rapidly expedite how we give them to people-- that's actually very encouraging. We just have to wait a few more months. I mean, we've already waited a year. What are three or four additional months? Once we get to have positivity rates of less than 3%, once we have more than 50% of the population vaccinated, I am going to feel much more comfortable. With the unknown that we don't know if these other variants are covered. And if they are not covered, then we're going to have to keep our little masks for a much longer period of time.

MELANIE LAWSON: How are the folks, Dr. Varon, in the ICU, and many of the workers that you see every single day-- how are they feeling about this?

PAUL BETTENCOURT: Oh my gosh! I mean, you have no idea. I mean, they say words that I cannot say on TV. But I'm serious, they are very upset. And again, I understand both sides. As you know, during this pandemic. I have remained apolitical. But the fact is that this illness is-- it's a political monster. People feel frustrated. I feel frustrated, because I have worked, today, 350 continuous days. And out of the blue, when I'm also maybe seeing that light at the end of the tunnel, I hear that we are opening the state in a way that, I think, is going to give me more patients. I feel disappointed.

MELANIE LAWSON: Is your biggest concern the fact that people won't be wearing masks, or the fact that businesses will be 100% open-- what is it that concerns you the most?

JOSEPH VARON: My biggest concern is that people are not going to wear masks. That's my biggest concern. And I said, for masks to work both people have to have a mask. If not, you still have a chance of getting in trouble.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

TED OBERG: Oh, I'm sorry. Judge Keough, I know we're going to lose you in just a second. I just wanted to ask you-- from your point of view, what would the danger have been in waiting? We've heard the Mayor suggest, "Why not wait a couple of months?" Dr. Varon say, "Why not wait a couple of months?" Judge George, "Why not wait a little bit?" To your mind, Judge Keough, what would be the danger in waiting?

MELANIE LAWSON: Your mic is not on.

TED OBERG: You're on mute.

MELANIE LAWSON: Judge, your mic is muted. There you go. There you go

JUDGE MARK KEOUGH: Whether he did it-- whether he did it right now, whether he did it next week-- apparently, there's something magical about next Wednesday-- I'm not sure what that is-- that up until Wednesday, we still are required to follow these things. I just think it should have been done a long time ago. And the fact of the matter is, by virtue of the fact that you can't arrest or detain, these Draconian ideas-- that we're going to give a warning, and then we're going to give a fine-- they don't mean anything. Because unless you can arrest, unless you can detain-- of which you can't do-- you're not going to be able to give these things. And so, in Montgomery County-- and as well as a number of other counties-- the sheriffs just said "No, we're not going to do this."

And the fact of the matter is the people are still self-regulating. I've been pushing self regulation from the very beginning. And we can say all that we want about how we just must make people do this. Listen, you have a city-- whether it's a 150,000, whether it's 3 and 1/2 million people-- how in the world are you going to enforce this? You have everybody and their brother complaining, and whining and fighting with sheriffs, and whatnot. And there are some that just aren't going to do it, no matter what you do. As far as--

TED OBERG: But part of enforcement, Judge, is just saying you've got to do it. I mean, some of that is just--

JUDGE MARK KEOUGH: No, no, here's-- here's-- the fact of the matter is, is that if you're going to have a restriction-- an order-- in place, then you're going to have to maintain that through some type of repercussions. And when you take those away, which the governor did, there are no repercussions. And so from the very beginning-- early on, we just decided that we're going to rely on personal responsibility. And the fact of the matter is, is that the people have been exercising that responsibility. I go over to HEB. I shop there. I go to the big box stores. I see people everywhere wearing masks. There are some that don't wear masks. I can tell you this-- the states that have the strongest restrictions, and are the toughest when it comes to these Draconian measures, have got the highest rates of COVID. They've got the highest rates of--

TED OBERG: Hold on, that's just not-- you and I both know New York and California have far lower positivity rates than Texas does. And so, I think-- I understand there is some debate about the effect of masks, but the fact is, states that have tougher rules-- including New York and California, the two largest states in the nation in front of us-- have far lower positivity rates. In the single digits. Under 5%.

JUDGE MARK KEOUGH: Ted. No, I appreciate what you're saying. The fact of the matter is, is that's ultimately not the case. And it hasn't been the case, and here-- just now, as we are seeing-- our numbers are dropping. It's not because we've been restricted. We are no more restricted today than we were six or eight months ago. And the fact of the matter is 99.5% recovery, no matter what we do. Listen, no matter what we do-- whether we partially close, whether we partially open, whether we wear masks, whether we don't wear masks-- is anybody paying attention to the recovery rate? All we keep hearing about is the increase in the infections. And nobody is talking about the recovery rate. It remains the same. How do you explain that?

And so I've been operating, in our county-- have been pushing, in our county, the same things all along. Personal responsibility. And that's where we're at today. We were there last March, April, May, June-- every month of the year, we've been in the same place. So I continue to support personal responsibility, as opposed to more laws and regulations.

TED OBERG: Mel?

MELANIE LAWSON: On but to bring in, now, the most patient man in our virtual room. And that is Dr. Timothy Sloan, who is Pastor. Dr. Sloan, tell me a little bit about your church. I know that you shut things down early in the year, when some of the other churches did, and went online. But you tried to go back, is that right?

TIMOTHY SLOAN: We did. Somewhere around August, or September. I think, like many other communities of faith, we were hopeful that there was going to be an opportunity for us to start moving back into worship. So we tried a staggered approach. We attempted to bring people in by invite only, in large groups based upon the ministry commitment. And we were bringing them in, and it was going well. We were doing it twice a month. But when we saw the numbers, the data begin to trend up again towards November, we made the responsible decision to limit again our attendance. To go back to a fully virtual worship experience.

I think our congregation, and so many communities of faith, have responded well to that decision because they recognize the importance of the responsibility of the leaders of the faith communities protecting them. Now, for us-- in the African-American community, in the Black church tradition-- there's so much trust and confidence placed on our houses of worship, our leaders in our faith community, that they believe if we've decided that we're not going to come in, then it's the responsible thing to do. So nobody's gotten upset. We're all a little weary. But we also recognize that this is disappointing in this moment, because we've got to continue to make sure that we're as vigilant as possible. So that we can return to some normalcy, at some period. At some period.

So here we are, getting ready to come up on one of the most important times-- I know for us, and our faith tradition-- just one month away from celebrating Easter. And we're all anxious to get back, but we also recognize we're not out of the woods yet. And we still have to maintain some responsibility to not only masking, but also maintaining our social distance. However long that takes, whatever is going to take, the important thing's that we're protecting the most vulnerable in our community.

MELANIE LAWSON: Well I know that you wrote a letter to Dr. Fauci and asked him if he would speak with your congregation for a few minutes. And he agreed, and came and spoke to them for about 15 minutes. But what is your-- what are your congregants, what are your members saying? Are they chomping at the bit to come back? Do they feel as though-- now that the Governor has said they don't need to wear masks, or that things have lightened up some-- that they should be able to come back?

TIMOTHY SLOAN: Well, several months ago we did a survey-- in the latter part of 2020-- to figure out where the mindsets were, towards people who wanted to come back. And we found out we're probably split, a little half and half-- not exactly people saying we want to rush back in, but saying that they were OK with us beginning to move back towards coming back in. But you've still got a large proportion of those individuals who are saying "I'm not ready." Now here's the thing-- for us, we're fighting also changing the mindsets of individuals just towards the vaccine. For communities of color, right now we're working hard just to get people's mindset to get off of the trauma that we've experienced in the black community, and say OK, we'll accept the vaccine.

And we've made a lot of progress. Dr. Fauci's conversation with our community of faith, and with so many others, made a lot of progress. So now to get to this point-- I think I and many of my colleagues across the city and the nation are concerned that movements like this, and lifting this type of mandate, creates this false sense of hope and optimism. So I think for us, we've got a personal responsibility. And as for us, we're not going to return. And we're also going to make sure that we keep our masks on. We're going to make sure that we continue to preach that same responsibility. So I think it's important for houses of worship to realize that we're not out of the woods yet, but we've still got a responsibility. So that we can get back to some normalcy.

MELANIE LAWSON: So when we go back?

TIMOTHY SLOAN: A million-dollar question. We're going to go back when it's safe. And I don't see that right now. I don't see the numbers. I'm not a medical doctor. I'm not-- I don't know a lot about all the different variants. But what I do know, it's enough to trust science. And to trust the data, and those individuals. We trust our Mayor, we trust our local government officials. And so we're going to make sure that we're following what they're telling us to do. And when that time comes, and we see significant movement, then we'll begin looking to do that. Now, I do think that there are some cultural differences, in communities of faith, towards the decision whether to come back in or not come back in. And we realize that the virus is impacting communities of color so disproportionately, so we're behind the eight ball on this thing. Fighting, because we're trying to protect individuals who don't even have the adequate access to much of the vaccine. So we're just trying to make sure now that we're getting them in a proper place to even protect themselves.

MELANIE LAWSON: Ted?

TED OBERG: Dr. Stone, I want to ask one other question, briefly. You talked about this false sense of hope. And I wonder what will create a real sense of hope-- for both of you, as you make this decision, and for your parishioners, who so desperately want to be back in a church-- I'm sure-- on Easter Sunday. But what will create that true sense of hope?

TIMOTHY SLOAN: Well for us, I think it's seeing the numbers trend in a downward direction. And that's one of the things that we've talked about from the day that we announced, over a year ago, that we were going to a totally virtual worship experience. That we said we will not return until we see that the numbers are trending in a way, in which we feel, as though we can be responsible enough to bring individuals back into the worship experience. So that is what we're really looking at. We're strictly looking at the data. We're looking at the numbers, and we're listening to the voices that we trust, in our community and nationally. That includes Doctor Fauci.

TED OBERG: Thank you.

PAUL BETTENCOURT: Melanie, Ted-- can we--

TED OBERG: Yeah, go ahead.

PAUL BETTENCOURT: Can we talk about some real numbers, then? Because let's talk about what's really happening, OK? I've got them right here. State data. At the end of December, there were almost 27,000 new cases. Just on the three of March, there's 4,781 cases. That's Texas. Oh, let's check California! January 9th, they had 52,000 cases more. March 4th, only 3,500. Let's check New York! 16,943 cases on January 9th. New cases, on March 4th they're lagging a little bit behind. They've got 7,593 new cases. Harris County! January 15, 5,614 cases. March 3, down to 1,230. State positivity rate below 9%. Harris County positivity rate, below 6.2%. Dr. Sloan, with all due respect, these are the real numbers. This is hope! This is progress! And this is--

TED OBERG: Oh, wait! Wait, wait, hold--

PAUL BETTENCOURT: Actual measurement, Ted. These are the real numbers! Check them out!

TED OBERG: I don't dispute that those are the real numbers. I think the question is, do we get them-- do we give a medal at the end of the marathon, or 20 miles in? And I wonder for you, if I could Senator Bettencourt, why does that give you the hope? Why does that decrease give you the hope to say, OK, now is the time to do this? To take our foot off the gas, instead of waiting till the numbers show even more improvement. To get down below the 3% that Doctor Varon talked about?

PAUL BETTENCOURT: Because, Ted, these numbers are substantial improvement. California's numbers are over a 90% improvement. Our numbers are over an 80-some-odd percent improvement. This is what's really happening. So when I hear Dr. Sloan say there's not any-- we're worried about hope. Specifically, there's a loss of hope. We've got real numbers that show, as the Governor said, that we are going to beat this virus. And look, we're going to have to deal with this virus. And the Doctor Varon knows, for a very long time. The Spanish flu left us the Hong Kong flu and others, that we see as influenza A and B on the Weather Channel site. This is going to be-- this going to be, what-- literally influenza C.

So I'm just saying that there is real, solid numbers-- not just the vaccination rate, and the number of vaccinations going up-- but the new case data is-- has plummeted in major states. And importantly-- at this point in time, as our vaccination curve goes up, and our new caseload has dropped-- that's the hope that exists because of the facts of the numbers.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

PAUL BETTENCOURT: And that's what I've got to say--

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: But wait a minute, but wait a minute. That goes contrary to how this virus operates.

PAUL BETTENCOURT: It's not contrary, Mayor! Here's the numbers!

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

PAUL BETTENCOURT: You've already spoken three times! Let's look at the numbers, now!

MELANIE LAWSON: But, Senator, let Mayor Turner answer.

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: I'm quite familiar with the numbers, I see them every day--

PAUL BETTENCOURT: Then good, you should agree with me!

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: And the end of--

PAUL BETTENCOURT: That we have hope!

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: Are you going to let me finish? At the end of April--

PAUL BETTENCOURT: You didn't let me finish at the Property Tax Hearing, so should I let you finish now?

TED OBERG: Yes, yes, yes--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

PAUL BETTENCOURT: I will. Go ahead, Mayor.

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: At the end of April, the numbers were all trending in the right direction. The Governor opened up the state in May, and June, July, and August were horrible. At the end of October, the numbers were trending in the right direction. The Governor opened up the state of Texas, and November, December, January were horrible. Now, the state-- the numbers are trending in the right direction. But the way this virus operates-- when you open up too soon, when you remove those checks that hold this virus in check, then the virus attaches and it increases.

So you just can't look at where the numbers are today. When you drop your guard, when you loosen up everything, when you take off the mask-- the virus reminds you, I never left. I am still here. And so now, you have to look at where the numbers will be come March, April, May as we move forward. I know the numbers. But you're ignoring how the virus operates.

MELANIE LAWSON: Dr. Varon, do you want to jump in on that? Dr. Varon, your mic's off.

JOSEPH VARON: Yeah. I mean, I hear this every day. I mean, this is-- I understand-- actually, I understand all of you. I understand Senator Bettencourt, no question, about it. I mean, yes, the numbers are looking better. There is no question that for me to to round on 20 patients is better than rounding on 88 patients like I was. But just like the Mayor said, you know-- June, July, and August I signed the most number of death certificates that I have seen in my entire life. I mean, the same happened after Thanksgiving. I mean, I am-- I am tired. And history tends to repeat itself. History tends to repeat itself. So why don't we learn from our mistakes? And yes, let's keep on waiting until things continue to go-- or let's get, like I said-- you know, why don't we just go halfway? Open the state as much as you want, just have your mask. Everybody happy. And then we don't have to have these town hall meetings.

JUDGE KP GEORGE: Yeah. Can I say something? Can I say something?

MELANIE LAWSON: Sure.

JUDGE KP GEORGE: Yeah. I just wanted to say, we are actually maybe deviating from what we started talking about, in my opinion. The timing of the announcement is what we started with. You know, last Tuesday-- maybe 20% of my residents are worried about how I am going to fix my house. Not worried about whether I should wear a mask or not. I tell you that. We are in the middle of one of the worst snowstorm we had. We were-- I, personally, affected by it. My house is all damaged. Our citizens, many parts of Fort Bend County-- even today, we are distributing water. And that's what people are worried about. Not worried about wearing a mask.

So I believe in personal responsibility. I believe in all these things we all are talking about. I just wanted to specifically say this-- the timing, the timing of this announcement is the problem. I will call it what it is. I wish Governor had that press conference saying that this is how I'm going to fix what happened last two weeks ago. If he had said that, I had all the respect in the world.

MELANIE LAWSON: Is that why you called it political, a few minutes ago?

EMILY WILLIAMS KNIGHT: Melanie, can I jump in?

MELANIE LAWSON: Sure, Dr. Knight.

EMILY WILLIAMS KNIGHT: Yeah, I think-- you know, I would just say-- as that the business representative, now, on this-- we spent 54 minutes talking about whether or not the governor's timing was right. We need to be coming together to help get our Texan-- our citizens-- through this. Our business owners. We need to now think about-- which is what we've been doing in the Association-- is how are we going to arrive to next Wednesday and make sure that our workers stay safe. Our guests stay safe. That they are really aware, right? Information is everything, right now. I forgot, I think it might have been Dr. Varon said people are confused, right? I think as leaders, we have a responsibility now to stop the rhetoric on whether this was right or wrong. This is coming, and I think we need to really focus on what we're going to do in our businesses, and our industries, and in our communities to really get through this next point. I really think that's where the conversation needs to be, not second guessing the governor's decision.

PAUL BETTENCOURT: If I could add-- you're right about that. Because you have 74% of your group says they're going to keep people in masks--

EMILY WILLIAMS KNIGHT: Absolutely. Wonderful!

PAUL BETTENCOURT: OK, we've got downtown businesses and major buildings that are not going to open, by their decision. Wonderful. We've got school districts that are going to make their decision. By the way, 56% of the kids in Texas are in classroom now. And 44% are not. We're making good decisions, as a society. And this order, again, is very-- it's nuanced, whether people want to recognize or not. Because he's actually saying stay in a mask. And he's repeating it on television, Ted. You heard it! So he's leading with that. And so let businesses, let schools, let everybody make the decision that's best for them. And we can move forward with this. But look, I'm going to tell you right now-- Biden's comment about people being Neanderthal? That's not helpful.

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: Oh, please.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

PAUL BETTENCOURT: Mayor, going to say it! Because it's not helpful, Mayor.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

PAUL BETTENCOURT: And also, too, having the threat meter in Harris County on full red for the year, but we--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

PAUL BETTENCOURT: It's not helpful! But Neanderthal is not the way for the President to start a new discussion.

TED OBERG: Senator, let me put pin in that one.

MELANIE LAWSON: Senator, yield, let's move on.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

TED OBERG: We have three minutes left, and I think Dr. Knight posed a good question. This is coming, in five days. And if I could, I'm curious-- what is-- to any of you-- what is it you need, right now, to be successful, given the fact that this is going to happen?

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

MELANIE LAWSON: And Dr. Knight, you should probably start. Do you feel as though your folks are ready to go?

EMILY WILLIAMS KNIGHT: Yeah, I think we have lead time. I don't know if we'll ever be ready to go. You know, I've been asked so many times about the mask mandate, but you have remember we're a public-facing industry. We always have been. We have confrontation with customers on a daily basis. Our hope is-- and this is really where I would ask-- Mayor Turner, really, he's been a great partner. He invited people to get our food, take it home, right in the middle of the pandemic when we really weren't operating.

Now we need to link together and say just exactly that. Look for the Texas Promise, right? That promise says our staff are in masks, and we encourage you to wear one as well. Look for that sign on the door, and that's how we'll make sure that we do our part as an industry. By linking with our community leaders. That that's going to be the best way to get through this. And frankly, our citizens need that right now. Many of them are scared, too. There's a lot of unknown, up and down. And so I think if we can come together as one voice, we're going to make a huge impact. It doesn't matter what side of the aisle you're on.

MELANIE LAWSON: All right. Dr. Varon, I wonder if you can just say something.

JOSEPH VARON: It's fairly straightforward. From my standpoint, I agree with Emily. I mean, simple little things. If we can get, for example, all the employees to be tested, that would be good. And then if we can get the customers to please come with a mask, everybody will be happy. And then everybody will have what they want, and we won't have to be calling each other names. And stuff like that. And then we don't have to have these town hall meetings, which actually I don't mind. But again, we're all passionate about it. This illness has really gotten to be out of control in this sense. So let's just work in getting people well. That's what we need to do.

MELANIE LAWSON: Now, we just have a few seconds, quite literally. Judge George, would you like to say something quick?

JUDGE KP GEORGE: Absolutely. And you know we are decided too, already. We are going to be sending out a lot of public announcements. And you know, this is what it is. But only thing I was saying, I wish it was a little bit easier. That's all I said. And we are going to deal with it, there is no question about it. And I believe in Fort Bend County residents. And we will be sending out, and I will be personally putting out, notes on social media. And I'm going to do everything possible, because end of the day I'm elected to serve 850,000 of my residents. And I will do. I did my best, and I will do that. There is no question.

MELANIE LAWSON: All right. Mayor?

JUDGE MARK KEOUGH: What the Governor has done, is he has turned the entrepreneur loose. He's turned him loose to be creative. To increase his business. You cannot have a healthy community, without a healthy economy. Period. And with 99.5% recovery, no matter what we do, stop the fear. Turn people loose. Let's let Wednesday come, and if-- and all the safeguards are in there, if anybody wants to exercise those.

MELANIE LAWSON: All right. Senator?

PAUL BETTENCOURT: I just want Texans to make the best decision they can, because this order gives them the decisions-- Whether they're a business, whether they're at their church or their place of worship, whether they're at school, whether they're just staying at their home, they can make the best decision they can. And I think Texans will beat the virus. And I believe in Texans. And I believe in Texas. And we're going to beat this thing.

MELANIE LAWSON: Mayor? And we are at 8 o'clock, so you get a quick response.

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: I certainly want people to get tested. I want people to get the vaccine. I want businesses to thrive. And I want people to stay alive. And I want to remember the 2000 Houstonians who have died, the 44,000 Texans who have died, and the 500,000-- and their family members, who have been affected their lives have been permanently changed.

MELANIE LAWSON: All right. Pastor, we're going to wrap it up.

TIMOTHY SLOAN: Yeah well, I appreciate it. I would say that our hope is that people will continue to be responsible. And I would like to also say, nobody is more familiar with hope than I am and the church. And one thing we do know about hope, it is also very responsible. So I hope that people will continue to be as responsible as possible. Mask up, so that we can one day get back to some normalcy.

MELANIE LAWSON: Ted?

TED OBERG: Mel, thank you. And I don't think I would speak after the pastor, Dr. Sloan. I think we all need hope. I think Easter is the season of hope. And I think we're all looking for that. And so, thank you all for joining us. And thank you for having me along, Melanie.

MELANIE LAWSON: Absolutely. And we do want to thank everybody for joining us, this evening, for a very illuminating-- often lively-- conversation that will no doubt continue in your homes, and in your places of business, for some time to come. We do appreciate your being with us, and have a great evening, everybody.