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COVID-19 April 23 Updates: Austin Launches Online Testing Tool, Council Approves Fund For Musicians

Firefighters from Austin Fire Department Station 22 wear face masks during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Austin firefighters wear face masks Monday while awaiting a procession for a San Marcos police officer killed in the line of duty to pass.

We'll be updating this story throughout the day Thursday with the latest local news on the coronavirus pandemic. 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 5:48 p.m. – Austin ISD resumes weekend meal program

The Austin Independent School District is resuming its weekend meal program. Starting Friday, families with students under the age of 19 can pick up packages of six meals at 16 schools between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Meal bundles also are being delivered by school bus to multiple locations.

Details of the program can be found here.

Update at 5:26 p.m. – Austin OK's federal money to shelter the homeless and another hotel lease

 

The Austin City Council will set aside $2.3 million in federal money to house the homeless during the coronavirus pandemic. The money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development will be given to Austin Public Health, which will in turn allocate the money to local organizations.

 

Council members also OK’d a $2.1-million contract to lease a hotel to house COVID-19 patients who can’t safely self-isolate during the pandemic. The vote is a continuation of the city's strategy to isolate people who have tested positive for the disease or show symptoms and quarantine those who may be the most at risk of COVID-19 across a handful of motels.

 

Two of those facilities exclusively cater to homeless patients, a practice that was recently folded into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's best practices to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among that population.

 

 

– Andrew Weber

 

Update at 5:03 p.m. – High court sides with Abbott on bail order, while also giving opponents a path forward

 

The Texas Supreme Court sided with Gov. Greg Abbott in a lawsuit against his executive order limiting automatic release for some people accused of – or those with a history of – violent crimes.

 

But opponents of the governor's order are characterizing the decision as a win.

 

Judges, attorneys and criminal justice advocates have all sued, accusing Abbott of overstepping his authority. The state's high court on Thursday decided judges couldn't sue because they weren't actively impacted by the order – and that they could effectively ignore it if they found it unconstitutional.

 

Opponents also said the 15-page opinion opens the door for more challenges. 

 

Read more from KUT's Andrew Weber here.

 

Update at 4:45 p.m. – Austin's online testing sign-up is live

For weeks, officials have said expanding COVID-19 testing is key for Austin-Travis County businesses to open up. Austin Public Health debuted an online tool Thursday to do just that.

APH says the online sign-up allows potential patients the chance to securely input their symptoms and then, if necessary, get a referral to a testing site that same day – all without having to visit a physician.

Officials say the data collected from the platform will provide better insight into possible COVID-19 hotspots.

Update at 2:30 p.m. — Scooter companies offer discounts, free rides to first responders   

There are far fewer scooters on Austin’s streets and sidewalks these days, especially around popular nightlife areas like Rainey Street. 

Instead, companies like Lyft and Lime are offering free rides to those on the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19, including first responders, health care workers and transit workers. 

“Lyft scooters can play a unique role in providing essential transportation to critical workers on the frontlines against COVID-19,” Caroline Samponaro, head of micromobility and transit policy at Lyft, said in a statement. “In a time of crisis, we know Lyft can be an essential lifeline, and we are proud to support first-responders, transit, and healthcare providers with free rides through LyftUp as they serve the public throughout Austin.”

Lyft rolled out its program on April 4, while Lime started rolling out a limited number of scooters in Austin again Thursday. 

“Lime is proud to partner with cities to provide scooters as an essential transportation option to reliably get frontline workers and residents where they need to go,” David Spielfogel, Lime’s chief policy officer, said in a statement. “We remain committed to the cities we love and serve, and we recognize the critical role of micromobility in serving transportation needs now and as we emerge from this crisis.”

The companies are also offering discounted rides to those in need through partnerships with cities and charitable organizations.

— Samuel King

Update at 2:20 p.m. — Austin City Council OKs funds for artists affected by COVID-19

Austin City Council members approved Thursday moving $1.5 million from the city’s reserve funds into the Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund, a program for musicians who’ve lost wages because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Last week, council members disagreed over whether this money should come from the city’s newly formed Live Music Fund, which is supported by taxes on hotel revenue and was set up to pay for longer-term solutions for performers struggling with Austin’s rising cost of living. Ultimately, council chose not to take the money from this new fund, concerned it would not have a means of paying back the money.

Council members also directed the city manager to use a current grant program as emergency rental assistance to help artists pay rent on their creative spaces, such as studios.

—Audrey McGlinchy

Update at 1:35 p.m. – Texas officials say abortion ban has ended

Abortion providers are no longer banned from performing the procedure in Texas, state officials said in a court filing Thursday morning,

Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order last month banning medical procedures that were not "medically necessary" – and said that included abortions. Shortly after, providers sued the state.

As the legal challenge winded through the courts, though, Abbott’s initial executive order expired and he issued another loosening restrictions for all medical providers.

On Thursday, state officials said providers that sued met the requirements of the new rules

Read more here from Ashley Lopez.

Update at 12:08 p.m. – 280,406 Texans filed unemployment claims last week

About 280,406 Texans filed unemployment claims last week, according to new numbers released Thursday. That's up by about 6,000 from the week before.

Texas – like the rest of the nation – has seen record numbers of people filing for unemployment as the coronavirus pandemic continues. About 1.5 million Texans have applied for unemployment benefits since mid-March. 

Update at 11:27 a.m. – McCaul expects the next round of federal aid will come with fewer strings for cities

As the U.S. House prepares to vote on a $500 billion in economic relief for businesses affected by COVID-19, Rep. Michael McCaul said the latest round of relief will focus more squarely on smaller businesses.

The Austin-area Republican told NPR's Noel King he hopes it'll expand aid for businesses with fewer than 500 employees through the Payroll Protection Plan.

He also pushed back on a suggestion by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that states could go into bankruptcy, rather than receive federal funding.

"I'm not sure I agree with him on that," he said, adding that he foresees the next round of relief to be more tailored to localities and that it could give mayors and county leaders more freedom in how they can allocate the federal money for local relief.

"What I tried to work on was [to] get more flexibility for local governments – particularly the mayors – to be able to have flexibility as to where to allocate the monies," he said, " that's what I've been hearing from my mayors, like Mayor Adler in the City of Austin." 

McCaul said he expects a House vote on that within the next few weeks.

Update at 10:04 a.m. — San Marcos closes parks until further notice

The City of San Marcos says all parks and facilities will stay closed until further notice to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

The closure includes Children’s Park, Dog Beach, Skate Park and all neighborhood park playscapes and basketball courts. All public restrooms and water fountains in the city’s parks are also closed. Natural areas are open, but visitors must follow social distancing rules.

Update at 9:34 a.m. — How self-employed, contract or gig workers should apply for unemployment

The Texas Workforce Commission is offering more information on how self-employed, contract or gig workers can apply for unemployment if they've lost their jobs due to the coronavirus crisis.

The agency says these workers will apply for "Unemployment Benefits Services," instead of "Pandemic Unemployment Assistance."

The UBS application will ask why they were separated from their job and applicants should select "reduced hours," then choose "COVID-19" under the disaster impact section.

If eligible, TWC will automatically enroll the applicant for pandemic unemployment assistance. The agency says those who apply may get confused when they receive an initial denial for unemployment insurance – but this won't affect their eligibility for unemployment assistance.

Eligible self-employed, contract and gig workers will receive weekly payments of up to $207, plus $600 from the federal pandemic assistance program. You can find more information here.

Update at 6:10 a.m. — Local officials to announce task force to examine reopening regional economy

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and city and county officials will announce the formation of the Opening Central Texas for Business Task Force during a press conference at 9 a.m. Thursday.

The task force will “honor public health priorities and focus on how to thoughtfully and safely reopen the regional economy,” according to a press release.

Read more here from Jerry Quijano.

Update at 5:45 a.m — Bastrop County to conduct random COVID-19 testing Thursday and Friday

The Bastrop County Health Authority and Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management will conduct random testing at 14 locations in the county on these days, asking about 150 residents if they would like to participate.

“Random testing is done so there is a better understanding of the pattern and spread of COVID-19 in the County,” Bastrop County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said in a statement. 

He said the county is trying to determine how widespread the disease is in order to help mitigate it. The goal of the random testing is to gather data from adults in the county who have not been sick or yet tested positive.

The county’s Office of Emergency Management says random testing is an important tool in the fight to slow the spread of the virus. It helps in allocating medical resources and staff more efficiently and aids officials with planning and guidelines for when businesses and activities can reopen. 

Catch up on what happened yesterday

Austin needs state's help to combat COVID-19 in nursing homes, Escott says 

Staff working at multiple facilities is contributing to an outbreak of COVID-19 in the region’s nursing homes, Interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Wednesday.

So far, 15 nursing home residents and at least one staff member have died, accounting for 16 of the 27 reported deaths in Travis County. Overall, 96 residents and 67 staff members have contracted the disease.

Escott has ordered testing for the entire staff at one nursing home. He is also discouraging employees from working at multiple facilities, particularly those with outbreaks. He stopped short of ordering staff to do so, because of concerns about personnel shortages.

“This is why we’re asking the state for new staff, for staff who don’t normally work in nursing facilities, so we don’t have a domino effect into other facilities," Escott said at a news conference. “Again, this crisis has been going on regarding nursing home staffing long before COVID-19, and I think COVID-19 is certainly highlighting some of the vulnerabilities that have been present for quite some time."

Other local coronavirus news from Wednesday:

  • Travis County has joined a lawsuit against an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott that restricts jail release for some offenders. 
  • UT Austin says it expects to know more this summer about what will happen with this year’s fall semester. An announcement is expected to be made in late June.
  • Small businesses in Austin that have been hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic can now apply for loans of up to $35,000 to provide gap funding as they await emergency loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
  • H-E-B stores will open at 7 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. starting Monday, April 27.

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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