This post has local news on the coronavirus pandemic from Wednesday, April 22. Read Thursday's live updates here. If you'd like to go through a roundup of COVID-19 news from Tuesday, read it here. If you have a news tip or question, email us at news@KUT.org.
- Do you think you have the coronavirus? Here's how to get tested.
- How to get help (and help) in Austin
- Get help 24/7 through the state's free mental health hotline: 833-986-1919
- Track the spread in Texas
- Sign up for coronavirus email alerts
Update at 5:15 p.m. — Kirk Watson discusses reopening Texas and the future of I-35
Outgoing state Sen. Kirk Watson says Texas needs to expand testing for COVID-19 and contact tracing if it wants to reopen. In an interview with The Texas Tribune, the longtime Austin senator said he thinks state leaders were focused more on the logistics of shelter-in-place orders, rather than increasing testing as COVID-19 spread throughout the state.
"This idea that we would just flip a switch and reopen – no, I don't think we're there. I don't think we have the kind of testing and tracing that we need in order to be able to do that," Watson said. "But I do think it's appropriate to be asking that, when the time comes, how do we do that in a way that we assure there's safety?"
Watson, who serves on the state's task force focused on reopening the state, says the group is meeting this week ahead of a deadline on a statewide shelter-in-place order. Watson, who's served 13 years in the Texas Senate, will leave his post on April 30 to lead the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Policy. A special election for his seat will be in July.
Watson spent the lion's share of his career advocating for the redevelopment of the I-35 corridor through Austin. The stretch of road hasn't seen a large-scale face-lift in decades, and the Texas Department of Transportation is weighing sinking $4.3 billion in state money into a project that would completely overhaul the perpetually congested highway that bifurcates Austin.
Answering a question from the Tribune's Ross Ramsey, Watson said he hoped Texas Transportation Commission would approve the project – even as the state's budget faces unprecedented shortfalls after the collapse of the oil market and decreased revenue due to statewide shutdowns because of COVID-19.
"I think they have to keep the process moving," Watson said. "As we get ourselves through all of this and have to make decisions along the way, there are some decisions you don't delay just because you don't know."
The Texas Transportation Commission is slated to vote on the project on April 30.
– Andrew Weber
Update at 4:55 p.m. — Travis County joins lawsuit against Abbott’s bail order
Travis County has joined a lawsuit against an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott that restricts jail release for some offenders. Misdemeanor and felony judges, along with the county and district attorney, signed a “friend of the court” brief this week.
They say Abbott’s order, which bars judges from granting personal bonds for people accused of – or with a history of – violent crimes, is unconstitutional. That case is currently before the Texas Supreme Court.
Update at 3:05 – UT expects to release plan for fall semester in June
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, President Greg Fenves said in a letter to the community Wednesday.
"We recognize that our nation will still be facing COVID-19 for the foreseeable future," he wrote. "As a result, we need to determine what the risks will be and how we can mitigate those risks by examining the ways we teach students and schedule classes, operate research labs and coordinate housing for students who live on and near the Forty Acres."
UT is conducting the rest of the spring semester online and already had announced plans to conduct the summer session online as well.
Update at 1:05 p.m. – Temporary loan program opens for small businesses in Austin
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.
“We understand that small businesses in Austin are still navigating the road to economic recovery,” Veronica Briseño, director of Austin’s Economic Development Department, said in a news release. “The Austin Economic Injury Bridge Loan Program will help small businesses retain employees and pay for expenses like rent and fixed debt."
To be eligible, businesses must be headquartered in Austin, be able to show an economic loss associated with the pandemic and have already applied for an SBA loan.
Austin City Council had wanted nonprofits to be eligible for the loans, but the federal government rejected that request.
The loans must be repaid within 12 months and have a 3.75% interest rate.
For more information and to apply, go here.
Update at 12:51 p.m. — Austin health official discourages staff from working at multiple nursing homes
Fifteen residents and at least one staff member have died in Austin nursing homes, accounting for 16 of the 27 reported deaths in Travis County. Overall, 96 residents and 67 staff members have contracted the disease.
Austin-Travis County interim medical authority Dr. Mark 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.
- Are you concerned about a family member inside an Austin-area nursing home or long-term care facility? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more from Samuel King on the situation in Austin's nursing homes.
Update at 5:15 a.m. — H-E-B extends hours
H-E-B stores will open at 7 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. starting Monday, April 27 until further notice.
“With an improving supply chain and stronger product availability, our stores have the capacity to serve more customers throughout the day while providing the products they want at our everyday low prices,” the company said in a press release.
The grocery store chain had shortened its hours to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in March so its staff could work overnight to better stock shelves amid the coronavirus pandemic.
H-E-B also says its continuing to ease up on product limits on items and starting to open more departments, like bakeries, delis and floral departments. Most H-E-B Pharmacies will still operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and maintain their normal weekend hours.
Update at 5:15 a.m. — As thousands face unemployment, Workforce Solutions says it’s here to help
The unemployment rate for the Austin-Round Rock MSA in March was 3.5%, up from 2.6% in February, according to Workforce Solutions Capital Area, a public-private partnership that connects people to jobs.
Tamara Atkinson, the CEO of Workforce Solutions Capital Area, spoke with Austin Mayor Steve Adler in a live Facebook video Tuesday evening. She said around 44,000 people filed jobless claims in the five-county region in March. Normally, that number is around 2,000 or 3,000.
“We know that people are hurting,” she said. “It’s not just those impacted by the virus but it’s those impacted economically.”
To help connect people with jobs during this time, Atkinson said Workforce Solutions has created a “Jobs Now” page that lists job openings in essential business sectors. She also said Workforce Solutions can subsidize child care for essential workers.
“If people have any questions, Workforce Solutions is virtually open and ready to help people apply for those jobs,” Atkinson said.
Catch up on what happened yesterday
Abbott says team is working on plans to reopen the state, directs Texans to jobs open now
Gov. Greg Abbott said his team is working quickly on a program to get Texans back to work and that he’ll be making an announcement Monday about next steps to reopen the state's economy.
“The good news is Texas is prepared to be taking very positive steps toward opening up our state and finally ensuring that we’re going to have more of our employees going back to work,” he said during a press conference Tuesday.
Abbott said his team has received input from the private sector regarding strategies for safe ways to open while containing the spread of COVID-19. The team is sharing that information with doctors who are reviewing it and making suggestions, he said.
Right now, the governor said, there are nearly half a million job openings in the state, including at places like Amazon, H-E-B and Randalls, as well as in the health care field. He urged people to visit WorkinTexas.com to find jobs in their area.
Other local coronavirus news from Tuesday:
- The Austin Independent School District will now swap out students’ AISD laptops that need repair with a working computer — from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m on weekdays.
- The economic recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic could increase the number of mental health and addiction disorders, a new report from the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute in Texas finds.
- The top doctor at Austin Public Health is advising caution about antibody testing that is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
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