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COVID-19 April 16 Updates: Protesters Want State Reopened, 1.2M Texans Have Applied For Unemployment

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Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
/
KUT
About 100 protesters gathered at the governor's mansion Thursday, demanding that rules be relaxed and the state "open back up."

This post has local news on the coronavirus pandemic from Thursday, April 16. Read Friday's live updates here. If you'd like to go through a roundup of COVID-19 news from Wednesday, read it here. If you have a news tip or question, email us at news@KUT.org.

Update at 4:21 p.m. – Group calls on jail inmates to be released

A group of local faith leaders and health workers want vulnerable jail inmates in Travis County to be released to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

No inmates have tested positive for the virus, but in a news conference Thursday, Dr. Snehal Patel said that doesn't mean there could be individuals in jail with the disease.

"If we do not have any individuals with infection in the jail, that’s phenomenal," he said. "And this is the opportunity that we have to really decrease the risk of infection being introduced and spreading very rapidly.”

The group of health professionals and faith leaders are asking officials to stop jailing people for low-level nonviolent offenses. They’re also asking jail officials to use social media so that families can see the measures being taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

Kelly Shoenfelt, lead pastor at Servant Church, said inmates have been forgotten during the global health crisis brought on by the coronavirus. 

"We need to make sure that all Texans, including those who are currently incarcerated, are given the same level of compassion, sanctity of life, and public health concern that every other person is receiving.” 

As of Monday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice stopped intake of all inmates from county jails.

Update at 3:24 p.m. — Austin Transportation Department opens more street space near Butler Trail 

People looking to exercise outdoors near the Roy and Ann Butler Hike and Bike Trail will have a little more space for walking and biking. The Austin Transportation Department will close a portion of Riverside Drive from Lee Barton Drive to South First Street to motor vehicle traffic beginning Friday.

"With the current stay-at-home order, automobile trips are down, allowing Austin Transportation to convert some select roadways temporarily into safe walking and cycling spaces that allow for better physical distancing," Austin Transportation Director Robert Spillar said in a statement.  

The trail has been converted to one way, following the mileage markers in a clockwise direction starting at Vic Mathias Shores. The Trail Foundation is encouraging people to stay away from the Butler Trail, but says those who do use the trail should keep 6 feet of distance from others.

Last Friday, ATD converted one southbound lane of the section of Pleasant Valley Road that crosses Lady Bird Lake (the Longhorn Dam bridge) to also help with physical distancing. 

Update at 2:33 p.m. — An eighth Cap Metro employee tests positive 

Another Capital Metro bus driver has tested positive for COVID-19. The transit agency now has eight employees who have tested positive for the disease. 

The bus driver’s last day at work was March 30, Cap Metro said. 

The agency has implemented measures to promote social distancing, such as putting yellow chains between bus operators and passengers, making rides fare-free and having people board from the rear door.

Update at 2:08 p.m. — Protesters outside Texas governor’s mansion call for businesses to reopen

Roughly 100 protesters gathered outside the Texas governor’s mansion this afternoon to protest the statewide shutdown of nonessential businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.  

The protesters — some wearing required fabric face coverings, others not — held hand-drawn signs that said things such as, “Every job is essential,” “Constitutional rights are essential” and “Liberty is essential, panic is not.”

Facebook event called “Take back Texas - Peaceful Protest to Reopen TEXAS” was among the pages promoting the rally, scheduled from noon to 5 p.m.

It has been more than two weeks since Gov. Greg Abbott announced statewide limits on nonessential activity. The governor refused to call the order a “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” order as many other states have done. Abbott is expected to announce plans Friday for how to reopen the Texas economy.

Update at 9:51 a.m. — More than 1.2 million Texans have applied for unemployment benefits

New numbers out Thursday morning show about 273,500 Texans filed unemployment claims last week.

That's down by about 41,600 from the week before – but the number of Texans filing for unemployment is still way above normal as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Overall, more than 1.2 million Texans have applied for unemployment benefits in the past month or so.

The Texas Workforce Commission says that's normally the number of claims filed in a year and a half. The TWC has increased its call center and server capacity in response to criticism about its slow response time to applications.

  • Have you applied for rental assistance in Austin or Travis County? Or know someone who has? KUT's Audrey McGlinchy would like to hear how it went. You can email her at audrey@kut.org.

Update at 9:39 a.m. — Food distribution program begins for people experiencing homelessness

A group of city and county officials and nonprofits has started a food distribution program, "Eating Apart Together," for people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic.

Meal bags with shelf-stable food will be delivered to known camp areas and through existing meal delivery programs. Those bags also contain some health and hygiene products.

The city is contracting for 1,000 refrigerated, ready-to-eat meals daily for pick-up downtown and in South Austin starting next week.  

“With social distancing, people aren’t sharing food or money out in the community or on street corners,” said David Gomez, program manager for Homeless Services at Integral Care. “Many of the food pantries have closed. And, for those with money, the stores they go to have limited supplies. Now more than ever, it’s important that we make sure our neighbors experiencing homelessness have enough food.”

The city says those interested in helping "add food or people power" to the initiative can reach out to Zack Shlachter at Zack.Shlachter@austintexas.gov.

Read more here from Andrew Weber.

Update at 4:45 a.m.— UT Austin nursing students translate COVID-19 information into Spanish

Two UT Austin students are translating and distributing COVID-19 health information for Spanish-speaking communities. 

Daniel Suárez-Baquero, a doctoral student with UT’s School of Nursing, is a licensed nurse in Colombia. Without a U.S. license, he can’t interact with patients here, so he found another way to help.

“There is a lot of information out there in English and Chinese to assist health care providers fighting the spread of the virus, but there are very few resources in Spanish,” Suárez-Baquero said in a UT press release.

He found a handbook on COVID-19 prevention and treatment through Zhejiang University in China that had already been translated into English. Suárez-Baquero and his team recruited Oscar Rocha, a research fellow at UT’s nursing school. In 24 hours, they translated the handbook to Spanish. After editing it, they emailed the translation to hospital and clinic nurse coordinators in Colombia and elsewhere, including Spanish-speaking communities in Austin.

Catch up on what happened yesterday

District judge to expand eligibility for mail-in ballots

A Travis County district court judge said Wednesday he will clarify that voters fearful of contracting COVID-19 will be allowed to use mail-in ballots during elections in July and November.

Under Texas law, only people over 65, people who are in jail and not convicted, people who will be out of the county, and people who are sick or disabled can get a mail-in ballot.

The Texas Democratic Party argued that because people could be exposed to the coronavirus while voting in person, they should be allowed to apply for a mail-in ballot under the “disability” category.

Judge Tim Sulak said he was “inclined” to side with plaintiffs in the case because voters were being put in a situation where they had two bad options.

Attorneys representing state officials said they planned to appeal Sulak’s order once it’s submitted.

Other local coronavirus news from Wednesday:

  • Central Health says it’s reopening some of the health centers it closed last month and expanding drive-thru testing in East Travis County to ensure people of color aren’t disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
  • UT Austin officials confirmed that 53 students who traveled to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for spring break now have tested positive for the coronavirus. That number is up from 49 two weeks ago.
  • Austin Public Health started accepting applications for a $15 million relief fund set up to provide immediate direct services and assistance to vulnerable residents affected by the coronavirus crisis.
  • Unlike Travis County, Williamson County has not extended its stay-at-home order yet. It’s set to expire April 30. 

What's happening statewide? Check out special coverage from KERA for North Texas, Houston Public MediaTexas Public Radio in San Antonio and Marfa Public Radio.

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