COVID-19 March 23 Updates: Adler To Order Shelter-In-Place For Austin, 'Vaccine' Website Shut Down
This page has updates from Monday, March 23. Read Tuesday's live updates here. If you'd like to go through a roundup of COVID-19 news from over the weekend, read it here. If you have a news tip or question, email us at news@KUT.org.
- Confirmed cases in Austin-Travis County: 86
- Do you think you have the coronavirus? Here's how to get tested.
- Q&A: Your coronavirus questions answered by a panel of experts
- How to get help (and help) in Austin
- Sign up for daily coronavirus email alerts
Update at 8:24 p.m. — Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt holds off on resignation
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt had been set to resign from office to run for the state Senate District 14 seat being vacated by Kirk Watson.
But Sam Biscoe, who has been appointed interim judge, has agreed to hold off on his swearing-in because of the coronavirus crisis, Eckhardt said Monday. Commissioners are expected to discuss the issue more during a Travis County Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday morning.
Update at 8:10 p.m. — 'We need to act fast,' Travis County Judge says ahead of shelter-in-place order
Stay-at-home orders are expected to be issued in the City of Austin, Travis County and Williamson County on Tuesday in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. The orders would require all nonessential businesses to have employees work from home and further restrict other gatherings.
Businesses with essential functions – like grocery stores – would be exempt, as would government functions and critical infrastructure. She said the orders could be in place for two to three weeks.
Read more from Samuel King here.
Update at 5:15 p.m. — First case confirmed in Blanco County
Blanco County has its first confirmed case of COVID-19. A female resident in her 60s tested positive for the disease on Saturday at a drive-thru test center. Her case is travel-related, and she is under self-quarantine at her home, the county says.
The county urged all residents to work together to minimize the spread of COVID-19 by washing hands often, practicing social distancing, only leaving home for essential outings and isolating themselves when feeling ill.
Update at 4:30 p.m. — Fort Hood soldier tests positive
A Fort Hood soldier has tested positive for COVID-19. The Bell County resident is in his 30s and is now in self-isolation at his off-post residence, according to a Fort Hood press release.
Other soldiers he may have been in contact with are self-quarantined in their homes.
Bell County has 16 confirmed cases, according to the county’s Public Health District. One of the cases announced Monday is a military retiree in his 40s living in Killeen.
He was tested at Carl R. Darnal Medical Center at Fort Hood, according to the press release. He is now in self-isolation at his home.
Update at 4:20 p.m. — Austin-Travis County to announce shelter-in-place order Tuesday
Austin-Travis County will announce a "shelter-in-place" policy Tuesday to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, Austin Mayor Steve Adler has confirmed to KUT.
Such an order requires residents not to leave their homes except for “essential activities." The city is expected to release details of the order in a midday news conference.
Update at 1:46 p.m. — Tito’s Vodka to make hand sanitizer for people in need
Tito’s Handmade Vodka says it’s working on producing hand sanitizer.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to shortages of hand sanitizer, which is thought to help protect people against the disease, at stores across the country. Earlier this month, people started suggesting online that Tito’s could be used to make it. But the retailer quickly responded, informing the public that hand sanitizer must contain 60% alcohol, and Tito’s is 40%.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau announced last week it is allowing permitted distillers to produce ethanol-based hand sanitizers.
The company wrote on its Facebook page that it’s in the process of getting the supplies it needs to produce hand sanitizer, and it has the equipment to make an initial 24 tons of it over the course of several weeks.
“While we don’t have all of the details quite yet, we do know we will be giving it away for free to our community and those most in need,” the company wrote.
Update at 1:18 p.m. — Five new COVID-19 cases confirmed in Williamson County
Five new positive cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed by the Williamson County and Cities Health District, bringing the county’s total to 14.
All but one of the new cases has an unknown source of exposure, the health district said. Two of the cases are women in their 20s, two are women in their 30s and one case is a woman in her 40s.
The 14 cases in Williamson County are located in the following cities:
- Austin: 2
- Cedar Park: 4
- Georgetown: 4
- Leander: 1
- Round Rock: 3
Update at 1:13 p.m. — Counties set up coronavirus hotline
Hays County and the City of San Marcos have set up a hotline people can call with questions about the coronavirus. Call-takers can answer questions in English and Spanish.
The service is available Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The number is 512-393-5525.
Williamson County also has a COVID-19 call center. It is open each day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. People can call 512-943-1600 to ask non-emergency questions or email COVIDemail@example.com.
People who have non-emergency health questions can call Williamson County and Cities Health District at 512-943-3660.
Update at 12:30 p.m. – Austin City Council members will vote on additional renter protections
In an attempt to further slow the eviction process in Austin for renters who’ve lost wages because of the COVID-19 crisis, council members will vote Thursday on a measure to essentially stall eviction filings against tenants for two months.
The proposed ordinance from Council Member Greg Casar requires that landlords give tenants up to 60 days to pay owed rent before posting a "notice to vacate" sign on a tenant’s door, typically the first step in an eviction proceeding.
While landlords can still file evictions during the coronavirus pandemic, Travis County judges are not hearing these cases. Judges suspended eviction hearings until at least May 9 as part of the effort to slow the spread of coronavirus. More on that here.
Update at 12:13 p.m. – Austin Energy encourages customers to track their electric use
Social distancing is key to slowing the spread of the coronavirus. But one side effect of staying at home – away from friends and work – is that resident's electricity use is likely to rise.
The problem will only get worse as the weather heats up, so Austin Energy is pointing customers with “advanced meters” to programs that help them track their electric use. The utility’s Weekly Electricity Update sends you emails that compare your electric use week to week, so you know how much more (or less) you might be consuming.
A "high bill alert" email tells you if your monthly bill is higher than it was during the same month a year ago.
If Austin Energy has an email on file, residents should receive the updates automatically. If you’re not getting them, you can call Customer Care at 512-494-9400 to sign up.
Update at 11:48 a.m. — Waco mayor issues shelter-in-place order
Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver is ordering all residents to stay at home, except to go to essential activities, work at essential businesses or for essential government functions. He’s also ordered all nonessential businesses to close, unless employees can work from home.
Essential businesses include grocery stores, health care providers, gas stations, banks, hardware and construction supply stores, restaurants (delivery and takeout only) and media organizations.
The order bans public and private gatherings of more than 10 people, excluding family groups.
Violating the order is a class C misdemeanor and could carry a fine of up to $1,000.
McLennan County, where Waco is located, is reporting 16 confirmed cases of the coronavirus so far.
Update at 10:34 a.m. — City of Pflugerville closes all playscapes, pavilions and courts in its parks
Pflugerville is closing pavilions, playscapes and volleyball, basketball and tennis courts in city parks immediately, the city said Monday morning.
The city said the closures are in place to encourage social distancing and discourage social gatherings.
City trails are still open — just remember to stay more than 6 feet apart and keep groups fewer than 10 people.
Update at 9:02 a.m. — Mayor Adler says shelter-in-place order is "absolutely" under consideration
Austin Mayor Steve Adler told KUT's Morning Edition that Travis County is considering its own "shelter-in-place" policy — but no final decision has been made.
On Sunday, Dallas County became the first county in Texas to issue such an order in an effort to keep hospitals from being overrun with patients. Adler said a lot of the rules put in place with the Dallas order are things Austin is already doing. Still, Adler said, nothing is off the table.
A "shelter-in-place policy is something that is absolutely under consideration," the mayor said. "I know that the county judge here has been in contact with the county judge in the other big counties. And we're making these decisions on a day-to-day basis."
Adler said, right now, the most important thing to do is to stay home – especially is you're not feeling well. If you do need to leave to run errands, the mayor suggests only one person from a household go out at a time and make sure there are 6 feet between you and those around you at all times.
Read Adler's full conversation with KUT's Nadia Hamdan here.
Update at 7:39 a.m. — Federal court in Austin issues restraining order against website offering coronavirus vaccine
The Department of Justice said it has taken its first action in federal court against fraud related to the coronavirus pandemic.
The operators of coronavirusmedicalkit.com, which has since been shut down, are engaging in a wire fraud scheme to profit from the confusion and fear surrounding COVID-19, federal prosecutors said.
The website claimed to offer access to World Health Organization vaccine kits in exchange for a shipping charge of $4.95. There are currently no legitimate COVID-19 vaccines and the WHO is not distributing any such vaccine, the DOJ said.
The restraining order issued in Austin requires the website registrar to immediately block public access to it.
“Attorney General Barr has directed the department to prioritize fraud schemes arising out of the coronavirus emergency,” said U.S. Attorney John F. Bash of the Western District of Texas. “We therefore moved very quickly to shut down this scam." An investigation of the website and its operators continues.
The DOJ urges the public to report suspected fraud schemes related to COVID-19 by calling the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) hotline (1-866-720-5721) or by e-mailing the NCDF at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catch up on what happened over the weekend
Gov. Abbott issues new rules to increase hospital capacity
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Sunday he is issuing orders to increase health care and hospital capacity as COVID-19 spreads throughout the state. He said he was not, however, going to issue a "shelter-in-place" order for Texas, as other governors have done.
Abbott is directing health care professionals to postpone all surgeries and procedures that are not necessary to correct a serious medical condition or to preserve the life of a patient. He said he is also suspending regulations that prevent doctors from treating more than one patient in a room.
“Together these orders will free up countless hospital beds across the entire state of Texas to be able to treat the potential increase in COVID-19 patients,” the governor said.
On Saturday, Abbott waived some nursing license regulations in the state to increase the number of available nurses.
Read more from Marisa Charpentier.
Austin and Travis County open joint COVID-19 testing sites
The City of Austin and Travis County opened its first COVID-19 testing site Saturday, one of 11 sites in a public-private partnership between Austin Public Health, St. David’s, Ascension Seton, UT's Dell Medical School and Baylor Scott and White.
The city says there is a big gap between the number of tests available and the number of people seeking a test, so sites will prioritize individuals who are sent by referral and have an appointment. Priority will be given to individuals with specific symptoms and risk factors such as travel, close contact with confirmed cases or underlying health conditions.
Federal disaster loans now open to small businessses and nonprofits in Austin
Austin small businesses and nonprofits hurt by the COVID-19 crisis can now apply for emergency loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). The Austin City Council is also considering a gap-financing program that could provide loans to applicants as they await the federal loans.
The SBA disaster assistance loans became available in Texas after the state received a federal disaster declaration over the coronavirus. The loans offer borrowers up to $2 million to pay “fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can’t be paid because of the disaster’s impact,” according to this SBA fact sheet.
Other local coronavirus news:
- Austin Mayor Steve Adler signed an order requiring retail businesses like grocery stores to ensure social distancing of at least 6 feet between customers in front of and inside stores.
- Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White and St. David’s HealthCare are implementing a “no visitor” policy in all hospitals.
- Burnet County has its first confirmed case of COVID-19, County Judge James Oakley announced Sunday.
- Capital Metro is hiring full-time and part-time positions to help provide essential services to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.