COVID-19 April 7 Updates: Williamson County Extends Stay-At-Home Order, Abortion Ban Upheld

Apr 7, 2020

This post has local news on the coronavirus pandemic from Tuesday, April 7. Read Wednesday's live updates here. If you'd like to go through a roundup of COVID-19 news from Monday, read it here. If you have a news tip or question, email us at news@KUT.org.

Update at 5:56 p.m. – Cap Metro expects $100 million in federal relief

Capital Metro is in line to receive more than $100 million as part of the federal coronavirus relief package known as the CARES Act.

In an interview Tuesday, President and CEO Randy Clarke said the money will be used as a backstop for lost revenue. The agency isn’t collecting fares this month and, even more critically, it projects sales tax revenue for March and future months to be down significantly. 

The federal grant will help with "cleaning supplies and overtime and all those kinds of things to get us through this crisis,” Clarke said. “It’s an incredible boost to keep us afloat."

Clarke said the funding should help the agency avoid layoffs or service cuts right now. 

“We're doing everything we can to have enough service where there's not more people in the vehicles themselves, so we keep that social distancing,” he said. “And at the same time, do everything we can to make sure that we can deliver the service with the right amount of operating staff.”

There is a hiring freeze in place, except for some critical positions like bus drivers. Cap Metro and its contractor for bus operations, MV Transportation, are hiring to address an existing shortage. 

Clarke said it’s too early to determine how the crisis will impact Project Connect, Cap Metro’s expansion plan. 

“I've been asked about this week after week, that the public still wants to see us moving the program forward. How the full program comes forward, I think, is still the question,” he said.  “I think people do want to see us not just put this on the shelf like it has kind of been for almost 20 years. And we just got to figure out that right sequence to bring those elements back.”

 – Samuel King

Update at 4:57p.m. – Federal appeals court rules Texas' abortion ban can stay in effect

Texas can continue to ban abortions as COVID-19 continues to infect more people in the state, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott issued on order halting procedures that are “not immediately medically necessary” during the coronavirus outbreak, which he said includes abortions.

In their ruling, judges said the state had the right to ban the procedure in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

“In the unprecedented circumstances now facing our society, even a minor delay in fully implementing the state’s emergency measures could have major ramifications,” they wrote, “because, as the evidence shows, an 'exponential increase in COVID-19 cases is expected over the next few days and weeks.'”

Read more from Ashley Lopez here.

Update at 2:38 p.m. — Williamson County extends stay-at-home order, anticipates hundreds of deaths

Williamson County is extending its "Stay Home Stay Safe" order until 11:59 p.m. April 30, the county announced Tuesday.

The decision comes after Gov. Gregg Abbott announced he’s limiting nonessential activities in the state through April 30. 

The goal of Williamson County’s order, which allows only essential activities and business to continue, is to avoid overwhelming the local health care system and prevent hospitals from exceeding capacity. 

County Judge Bill Gravell said Tuesday that a UT Austin model shows about 100,000 people in Williamson County could end up getting COVID-19. 

“Of those, they predict 5,000 will be hospitalized with nearly 800 in intensive care and hundreds dying,” Gravell said in a press release. “The only way to prevent this is to be vigilant in our efforts at social distancing and staying home.” 

Gravell’s numbers were based off UT models that estimate the number of cases the Austin-Round Rock metro area would see between March and August, depending on how much it increases social distancing. The latest modeling shows that if the area cuts social interactions by 75%, an estimated 566,469 people will get the disease.

A Williamson County spokesperson said the county projections were based off the fact that Williamson makes up about a quarter of the six-county region. Assuming social interactions are decreased by 75% and a quarter of the estimated cases end up in Williamson, the county would see 146,659 cases.

If the same scenario is applied to UT’s latest modeling for hospitalizations, the numbers are a bit different than Gravell’s estimates: There would be 4,462 hospitalizations, 53 patients in ICU beds and 345 deaths.

You can read more about UT’s modeling from the Texas Tribune.

Update at 1:48 p.m. — Blanton Museum introduces ways to "museum from home"

The Blanton Museum of Art is closed to the public during the coronavirus pandemic, but the museum is introducing ways to experience its art from home.  

The Blanton already has a database with information and images of many of the works in its permanent collection. Beginning Tuesday, it’ll start a series called Curated Conversations, an online Q&A segment each Tuesday at 5 p.m. People can ask Blanton staff questions about all things art. Happy hour drink suggestions and recipes will be provided.

The museum has also started releasing 360-degree video tours of its exhibitions. It has plans to start a video series called #ArtWhereYouAre Studio, where educator Monique Piñón teaches art activities inspired by works at the museum. It also plans to make downloadable Blanton-themed coloring activities available on its website. 

The “museum from home” programs can be found here.

Update at 12:28 p.m. – Fourth person with COVID-19 dies in Williamson County

A fourth Williamson County resident has died from complications related to COVID-19, the county's health district tweeted Tuesday. The woman was in her 50s.

The county reported six new positive cases, bringing the total to 87. It said 37 people have recovered from the disease.

Update at 11:58 p.m. – Foundation launches campaign to feed health care workers

The Baylor Scott and White Foundation launched a Food for Caregivers campaign Tuesday to provide health care workers at Baylor Scott and White facilities lunch and dinners from local food trucks and restaurants.

The foundation is raising money to pay for the meals, though some establishments are donating food. You can donate here.

Update at 11:39 a.m. – City requires active building sites to display safety posters

Active construction sites in Austin with more than 10 people must display visible, on-site safety guidelines in both English and Spanish, the city's Development Services Department says.

The requirement comes after Gov. Greg Abbott classified all construction as essential during the coronavirus pandemic. The safety poster shows reminders to disinfect shared tools regularly and to maintain a 6-foot distance from others. Construction workers are also encouraged to wear fabric face masks to help limit the spread of COVID-19. 

Austin code inspectors will monitor construction sites to ensure workers are practicing proper distancing and following hygiene guidelines. 

Update at 10:03 a.m. — All City of Austin parks, trails and greenbelts will close Easter weekend

Starting at sunset on Thursday, all City of Austin parks and trails will close for the Easter weekend to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The closures, covering all city trails, greenbelts and preserves, including the Butler Hike and Bike Trail around Lady Bird Lake, end at sunrise on Monday.

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department says city parks historically see an increase in visitors during the Easter holiday weekend, making it difficult for visitors to keep six feet apart.

Read more about the closure here.

Update at 8:59 a.m. — Gov. Abbott closing Texas state parks and historical sites

All state parks and historic sites are temporarily closing as part of the state's efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Greg Abbott's office said in a statement this morning. The parks and sites will close starting at 5 p.m. and reopen at the governor's direction, his office said.

"Social distancing is our best tool to curb the spread of COVID-19 and save lives," said Gov. Abbott. "The temporary closure of our state parks and historic sites will help us achieve this goal by preventing the gathering of large groups of people. I urge all Texans to continue to stay at home except for essential services as we respond to COVID-19. By following these social distance practices, we will overcome this challenge together."

Texas Parks and Wildlife says it will automatically process cancellation of both overnight and day-use reservations. If your reservation has been affected by the closure, a customer service center agent will contact you. "You do not need to contact us," the department said.

Update at 7:22 a.m. — Austin ISD high school students will get pass or incomplete grades for the spring semester

The Austin Independent School District’s board of trustees passed a resolution last night addressing how to deal with grades as classes move online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The board approved the following measures: Class rank for high school seniors will be calculated with grades from up to the third quarter, which was the first six weeks of this spring semester. Classes that students are enrolled in this semester will not get A-F grades but instead their transcript will show pass or incomplete. GPAs for high school students will not include this spring semester.

Some board members brought up the concern that some families may have about how this could affect college admissions. But board members said colleges and universities will likely understand.

Read more from Claire McInerny.

Update at 5:30 a.m. — Lockhart ISD to provide all students with internet access

Lockhart Independent School District is purchasing seven network towers to provide wireless internet to all of its students and staff in Caldwell County. The action comes as many of its students lack internet access at a time when it’s become critical: while students are learning online from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A recent survey found that 40% of LISD students lack internet access, the district said in a press release. While the district has passed out Chromebooks to students in need, many are still unable to participate in online learning. Parts of Caldwell County are “dead zones,” meaning they aren’t serviced by any internet provider, the district says.

The LISD board of trustees voted to amend the budget Monday night to allow for the purchase of these network towers. The district will partner with Particle Communications to access three already existing towers in Luling, Dale and Seawillow, which will provide internet service within an eight-mile radius to students and staff by the end of April. Additionally, the district plans to build four new towers at Strawn Elementary and in Fentress, Maxwell and Uhland. 

“In total, seven towers will provide internet coverage countywide by the end of this July,” the district says. 

The move will cost the district $447,500 for the first year. The cost includes setup fees for the seven towers, installation of routers in up to 500 homes and internet service for the first year. The annual cost for internet service after that will be $60,000.

“As our leadership began planning for distance learning in response to COVID-19, we learned how many of our families either have unreliable internet or no internet service at all,” Superintendent Mark Estrada said in a press release. “I am grateful to our Board for fully supporting the budget amendments that enable us to more immediately address this issue as quickly as possible.”

Until the towers are operational, the district is giving those unable to access the internet paper packets that cover topics others are learning online during distance learning.  

Catch up on what happened yesterday

Austin health official expects city's face-covering guidance will become a requirement 

The interim health authority for Austin-Travis County said he expects a recommendation for Austinites to wear fabric face coverings when they're outside the home to become a requirement.

The city's health officials first recommended on Sunday that people cover their faces while outside the home, following new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Mark Escott said Monday that the point of everyone covering their faces is not to protect the wearer from people who are sick; it's designed to protect other members of the public from the wearer. 

"We have increasing evidence that those without symptoms, as well as those who have very mild symptoms that may not even realize they could be infected, have the ability to transmit the disease," Escott said.

He said masks must be used along with social distancing, not as a substitute.

Other local news from Monday:

  • A food service worker with the Austin Independent School District died Thursday after testing positive for COVID-19.
  • Care.com is offering 90 days of free in-home child care for frontline workers and caregivers responding to the COVID-19 crisis, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday.
  • Bastrop County confirmed its first death from COVID-19, a 58-year-old man from Elgin.
  • The Austin History Center is documenting life during the coronavirus pandemic and is asking the community to contribute to the collection for a series called "The COVID-19 Files: Austin Responds to a Pandemic."

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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