The Latest on COVID-19 and Its Effects on Austin

Our News team's ongoing coverage of events in Austin and Texas

credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

At a Friday afternoon press conference, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was declaring a State of Disaster in all Texas counties, which he said would allow the state more flexibility to meet anticipated needs as the outbreak progresses.

The declaration would allow for movement of resources, personnel, and even items obtained from the Strategic National Stockpile as needed, Abbott said. He also announced that visitors would be screened at nursing homes, state-supported living centers, hospitals, daycare facilities, prisons, jails, and juvenile justice facilities. On the subject of testing, he said that state public labs can currently test 270 per day and that more private labs “are coming on line,” touting a drive-through testing facility that he said just opened in San Antonio.

The governor also urged people not to stockpile supplies, saying that “hoarding was neither necessary nor productive.” – Margaret Nicklas

Despite a declared global pandemic and now dozens of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas, state leaders have yet to budge in their ongoing efforts to halt paid sick leave for Texas workers.

When Austin City Council passed policies to ensure workers would get paid time off and allow caretakers to assist sick family members, Attorney General Ken Paxton and right-wing corporate-friendly group, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, swooped in to stop the measure with a lawsuit, preventing it from taking effect in October 2018. It’s now tied up in court. The same conservative players have also blocked San Antonio’s paid sick leave measure. In the state overall, approximately 40% of workers lack paid sick leave.

“Right now there are hundreds of thousands of Texas workers who could have access to paid sick leave, but do not, because of this dangerous lawsuit by Ken Paxton, TPPF, and NFIB,” said Emily Timm, deputy director of Workers Defense Project.” – Mary Tuma

Hours after announcing the University of Texas at Austin canceled classes and campus operations for today (Friday, March 13), UT President Greg Fenves notified the university community that his wife, Carmel, tested positive for COVID-19 early this morning.

A second member of Fenves’ family, who also works at UT, is presumed to have COVID-19 as well. Fenves said he has now been tested for the virus and that all three are currently in self-isolation. The news follows a flurry of school closures and class cancellations after this morning’s announcement of two other, separate presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Travis County. Austin Independent School District closed its offices and schools for the day, in addition to Austin Community College, Concordia University, UT, and St. Edward’s University cancelling Friday classes.

The four colleges, in addition to Huston-Tillotson University in East Austin and Georgetown’s Southwestern University, go on spring break next week. Texas State, ACC, Concordia, Huston-Tillotson, Southwestern, and UT have extended their breaks by a week amid coronavirus concerns. For now, all of the aforementioned colleges – excluding UT – have plans to move all courses to online-only when students return from spring break. Some schools, like Huston-Tillotson, are closing residence halls as well.

At the time of this post’s publication, AISD is still proceeding with next week’s originally scheduled spring break (March 16-20). The district prepared curbside lunches for students earlier this afternoon and says meals will continue to be provided Monday through Friday starting March 23 if schools remain closed. – Beth Sullivan

In response to the spread of COVID-19, Austinites who are unable to pay their utility bills will not have their service shut off, per an announcement from Austin Energy. The decision to suspend indefinitely service disconnections came hours after the city's first cases of the disease caused by the new coronavirus were confirmed. Also, Travis County’s five justices of the peace have issued a standing order halting eviction proceedings, and court appearances for traffic offenses and Class C misdemeanors are being postponed. – Austin Sanders

State Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin, and TX-10 Congressional candidate Mike Siegel today issued a joint press release demanding universal voting by mail, so that “no one [is] at risk by participating in our elections.” Currently, voting by mail is restricted to seniors, persons with disabilities, and those who will be out of state on election day; Cole and Siegel (the latter will be on the May 26 Democratic primary run-off ballot) demanded Gov. Greg Abbott include in his emergency declaration an extension of the mail franchise to all voters. – Michael King

As Austin and Travis County residents begin to grapple with a new reality that includes proactive avoidance of public spaces and self-quarantine at home, what can be done for our neighbors who live in public spaces because they have no homes to go to? Shelter operators tell the Chronicle that shutting down is “beyond the worst-case scenario” as they still aim to prevent the spread of COVID-19 –A.S.

Track the Chronicle's latest COVID-19 coverage.

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