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Travis County Poll Workers' Coronavirus Fears Prompt A 'Rocky Start' To Election Day

Voters look at sample ballots while waiting to vote at Randalls on Braker Lane on Tuesday.
Julia Reihs
Voters look at sample ballots while waiting to vote at Randalls on Braker Lane on Tuesday.

Citing fears of the new coronavirus, election workers in Travis County didn't show up to some polls Tuesday, hobbling or delaying the opening of some voting locations on Election Day.

In a statement to KUT, the Travis County Clerk's office said the unexpected delays were due to "multiple no-shows" that set Election Day off to a "rocky start," though as of 11:15 a.m., the county said all polling locations were up and running.

"To the extent that the Elections Office was given a reason, it seems people were fearful of the Coronavirus," Victoria Hinojosa, executive assistant with the clerk's office, said. "The office began implementing its emergency procedures as soon as it became apparent that the number of no-shows was a problem. The Elections staff and other personnel are filling in as emergency recruits."

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Election officials had planned for a record-breaking number of voters in the weeks ahead of early voting, but fears over COVID-19 pushed the Travis County Clerk's office to take precautionary measures Election Day. 

Officials told KUT they're "amping up" sanitation practices by stationing more hand sanitizer at polling places and asking voters to wipe down voting machines after casting their ballots.

In a statement Monday night, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt urged voters to practice safe hygiene as they cast their ballots. 

"Our public health professionals want to reassure you that your time participating or assisting others as they cast their ballots is valued and will not change your risk of disease as long as you follow the proper hygiene practices, including frequent handwashing, avoiding touching your face, and covering coughs and sneezes," she said. 

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Mark Escott, Austin Public Health's interim health director, updated Travis County officials Tuesday morning on the risk of COVID-19 in the Austin area. He offered simple advice to voters who may fear the spread: Use hand sanitizer. He said Austin Public Health has seen no evidence of the virus' spread in the area.

"We have no evidence of community spread," Escott said. "We should not be afraid of going to our polling places to do our civic duty today."

He added that the risk of contracting COVID-19 is "low," though officials are testing "one or more" individuals for coronavirus in the Austin-Travis County area. Because of privacy concerns and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Escott could not provide any additional details about the investigation.

Fears over the virus – which has spread to as many as 92,000 people worldwide and prompted a declaration of a state of emergency in San Antonio – have prompted a larger discussion in the Austin area, which is preparing to host South by Southwest.

Festival officials say they have no intention of canceling the event, and that they are working with federal, state and local officials to ensure it's safe. A handful of the SXSW's partners have pulled out because of concerns over the virus, including Facebook, Twitter, Intel and others.

As of 11:15 Tuesday morning, Travis County election officials said, more than 39,000 people had voted. Every polling location was up and running, but officials said they were still "actively recruiting workers" to send out to some locations.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
Ashley Lopez covers politics and health care. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.
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