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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announces team to restart the economy, loosens some restrictions

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Gov. Greg Abbott is briefed on the coronavirus outbreak, in Austin on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday announced initial steps to begin the process of reopening the Texas economy amid the coronavirus pandemic, including over the next week loosening surgery restrictions at medical facilities, allowing all retail stores to provide product pickups and reopening state parks.

Abbott also named a "statewide strike force" devoted to developing reopening procedures. Austin banker James Huffines will chair the task force, while veteran lobbyist Mike Toomey will be its chief operating officer. That group will oversee what Abbott described as a phased reopening. Additional openings will be announced April 27 "after further input from medical staff," Abbott said.

"Even more openings will be announced in May when it is determined that the infection rate continues to decline and when testing capabilities are sufficient to test and contain" outbreaks of the virus," he said.

Abbott didn't detail what those later opening would entail. He also announced that schools — public schools, private schools and universities — will remain closed for the rest of the school year.

Huffines is Central and South Texas chairman of PlainsCapital Bank in Austin. From 2003-10, he served on the University of Texas System Board of Regents, including two stints as chair.

Toomey is best known as a close adviser to former Gov. Rick Perry, for whom he was chief of staff. Toomey, a former state representative, also was chief of staff to ex-Gov. Bill Clements. Toomey is currently a partner at Texas Lobby Group.

Abbott's news conference came as the number of coronavirus cases in Texas climbed to at least 17,371, including 428 deaths, according to the latest numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services. Out of Texas' 254 counties, 192 are reporting cases.

The number of tests done in Texas stands at 169,536, according to the state figures. That continues to amount to a tiny fraction of Texas' nearly 29 million people, fueling concerns that the extent of the outbreak across the state is not fully known.

In recent days, Abbott has faced pressure from some in his own party to reopen the state's economy, while Democrats have argued Texas is nowhere near ready to do so, citing the testing numbers. Among the Republicans agitating for a return to normal have been President Donald Trump and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who formed his own task force on restarting the economy 10 days ago.

Abbott, for his part, began previewing late last week the executive order that he issued Friday.

This developing story will be updated soon.

Disclosure: James Huffines has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.