Strike Force to Open Texas disbanded months ago

Texas Politics

During a June 22, 2020 press conference, Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas, holds a copy of “The Governor’s Report to Open Texas,” which his office compiled with his Strike Force to Open Texas. The report outlined mitigation measures and business opening plans. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Strike Force to Open Texas, formed near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has not met in months, one of its members said this week.

The Strike Force was launched in April by Gov. Greg Abbott to advise him on “safely and strategically reopening the state of Texas,” through a team of “nationally recognized medical experts and private and public leaders.” He made the announcement as he shared the beginnings of his plan to reopen the state.

One of its members, Dr. John Zerwas, a former state lawmaker and current executive vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System, said the four chief medical advisors on the panel had not met regularly as Abbott mulled lifting statewide pandemic measures.

“I don’t think that the Strike Force to Open Texas is largely an operational thing anymore, to tell you the truth,” Zerwas said in an interview. “We as four doctors have not met in weeks, if not months, to determine any kind of conversations around further openings, and so forth.”

Abbott announced Tuesday he was rescinding business capacity restrictions relating to the pandemic and would lift the statewide mask mandate on March 10.

Abbott’s chief medical advisors on the Strike Force were split on lifting COVID-19 restrictions. Some were not consulted directly before he made the announcement Tuesday.

“We serve at the discretion of the Governor,” Zerwas said. “And I think the Governor was comfortable with the advice that he was getting.”

“I don’t know that he was getting advice just from me, frankly,” Zerwas added. “But, I certainly support the direction that the Governor is taking.”

He described the Strike Force as a “very large group” put together to look at reopening the state in “various stages.”

“It had really its greatest amount of activity during the month of late April, May and into June, then we went through a surge, you know, and largely everything was — was put on pause at that point,” Zerwas said. “And really, the Strike Force never sort of reconstituted itself, as far as an active Strike Force in that regard.”

Zerwas said Abbott routinely reached out to him and Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt for consultation on medical advice. They were regulars at his pandemic press conferences during the summer.

The section of the Governor’s website where the Strike Force information lives lists a 40-person team, with four smaller advisory panels focusing on sectors like health care, education, economic revitalization and fiscal accountability.

“The Governor’s Strike Force to Open Texas will safely and strategically restart and revitalize all aspects of the Lone Star State—work, school, entertainment, and culture,” under the direction of Abbott, with advice of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dade Phelan, Attorney General Ken Paxton, and Comptroller Glenn Hegar, the website’s homepage reads.

“I don’t know that he necessarily intended it for it to continue to be, you know, an absolute that he would consult all four of us for any future decisions that he would make,” Zerwas said of the four chief medical advisors on the health care panel of the Strike Force.

A senior advisor in the Governor’s office confirmed the Strike Force was disbanded months ago. A request for information to Abbott’s press team on the disbanding of the group was not immediately returned Thursday. We will update this story when we receive a response.

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