COVID-19 March 19 Updates: Austin-Travis County Cases Hit 41, Gov. Abbott Limits Gatherings

Mar 19, 2020

We'll be updating this story throughout the day Thursday with the latest local news on the coronavirus. If you'd like to go through a roundup of Wednesday’s news on COVID-19, read it here. If you have a news tip or question, email us at news@KUT.org.

  • Confirmed cases in Austin: 41
  • What should I do if I think I have the coronavirus? If you are experiencing symptoms including fever, cough and shortness of breath, call your health care provider. Do not go to a health care facility first.
  • If you are uninsured and/or don't have a doctor: call CommUnityCare at 512-978-8775. CommUnityCare will talk to you over the phone and send you to the appropriate location.
  • Q&A: Your coronavirus questions answeredby a panel of experts
  • How to get help (and help) in Austin

Update at 7 p.m. — Number of confirmed cases in Austin-Travis County increases to 41

Austin Public Health officials say there are now 41 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Austin-Travis County, an increase from 23 confirmed cases on Wednesday.

The number of cases had been expected to rise as testing ramps up. 

APH has developed a five-phase plan for COVID-19 response and now believes the community is in Phase 5, which is “sustained person-to-person spread in the community,” according to the city’s website

Community spread means people have been infected with the virus in an area — not from traveling — and they may not know where they got it from. 

"We believe these cases do indicate community spread, but the contact tracing work is still ongoing with Austin Public Health to verify," a city spokesperson told KUT.

Update at 6:00 p.m. — Luck Reunion lives on — virtually

Coronavirus concerns led to the cancellation of Luck Reunion, the annual “anti-festival” held in Willie Nelson’s backyard. But a free live-streaming event allows people to listen to this year’s performers from the comfort of their own homes. The live-stream features Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Paul Simon & Edie Brickell, Nathaniel Rateliff and more. The concert is Thursday from 6-11 p.m. 

Update at 3:58 p.m. – Austin Transportation launches pick-up zones to ease access to restaurants

A new designated pick-up parking spot outside Brew and Brew in East Austin.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

To make it easier to access restaurants transitioning to pick-up and delivery service, the Austin Transportation Department has begun converting some paid on-street parking spots into free temporary loading zones. 

There have been 50 such zones established so far, with an early focus on areas that have a lot of restaurants, but limited loading options or off-street parking. 

More zones will be added based on need and field observations. Restaurants can request an evaluation by filling out a form at SmartMobilityATX.com.  

Update at 3:03 p.m. – Behind the scenes at an empty KUT

Projects Editor Matt Largey gives a tour of the KUT studios. Most staff members are working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, but a few employees are in the office to keep the broadcast running.

Update at 2:38 p.m. — Travis County jails take steps to address COVID-19 

The Travis County Sheriff's Department said Thursday it's taking "extensive measures" to prevent COVID-19 cases in its jails.

Staff members are taking people's temperatures at building entrances and denying entrance to anyone with a temperature of 99.6 degrees or higher.

Intake staff is also asking people who have been arrested a series of questions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine if someone is at risk of having COVID-19. People who exhibit symptoms are isolated for medical observation.

The department says, as of Thursday, three people have been quarantined and two of those people have been cleared; one is still under observation. Those inmates in quarantine were suspected of coming into contact with a disease, but haven't necessarily shown symptoms. 

Update at 1:43 p.m. — Gov. Abbott closes schools, bars and restaurants, limits gatherings amid COVID-19 outbreak 

Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order that temporarily closes schools, bars and gyms – and limits restaurant service to takeout and delivery orders only amid COVID-19 concerns. The order, which goes into effect at midnight tomorrow night and lasts until April 3, also limits gatherings to 10 people.

The order bans people from visiting nursing homes and longterm care facilities unless they are providing care.

Abbott said the order is meant to comply with guidelines for social distancing set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and stressed that, though the order limits gatherings of people, the state is not ordering people to stay home.

"This executive order is not a shelter-in-place order," Abbott said. "It does not prohibit people from doing things like going to the grocery store or gas stations or parks or banks. All critical infrastructure will be open and operational."

The governor also urged employers to require only essential staff come in to work and to encourage employees to work from home, if possible.

Read more from Andrew Weber

Update at 1:34 p.m. — Capital Metro asks for federal help amid COVID-19 crisis

Capital Metro is asking lawmakers in Washington to include public transit agencies in any emergency aid packages in response to COVID-19. 

The agency saw a 64% drop in ridership on Wednesday, the first day of a reduced daily schedule. Ridership was down 40% on Monday and 45% on Tuesday.

Even more concerning for Capital Metro officials is a potential drop in sales tax revenue as the economy slows. The agency was expecting $265 million in sales tax revenue this fiscal year.

“With the effects of this crisis expected to last for months, we anticipate a long trend in lower ridership and sales tax revenues, crippling our ability to maintain adequate levels of transit service while taking care of the 2,000 plus workforce we employ,” Capital Metro President and CEO Randy Clarke wrote in a letter to the region’s congressional delegation.

The Federal Transit Administration has already loosened restrictions on the use of federal funding for things like sanitizing vehicles and providing more hand sanitizer stations. 

Capital Metro also plans to provide up to three weeks of sick leave for employees or contractors that support operations. It would apply if an employee or member of their household is affected by COVID-19.

Update at 11:27 a.m. – Austin ISD to continue to provide meals while school is out

The Austin Independent School District's Food Services will prepare and provide meals Monday through Friday while schools are closed because of the coronavirus.

Starting March 23, students under 19 and their parents or caregivers can receive breakfast and lunch daily. AISD bus drivers will deliver meals to 54 community locations between about 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Curbside meals will also be available for pickup from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 16 school sites including Perez Elementary, Burnet Middle School and Eastside Memorial Early College High School.

The district encourages families to fill out request forms between 5 and 10:30 a.m. on the day they'd like a meal to ensure food doesn't run out. Families can also take home a weekend meal pack on Fridays. For a full list of pickup and curbside locations, go here.

Update at 8:33 a.m. — How to help Austin animals

Austin Animal Center, which closed to the public due to concerns over the coronavirus, is not completing adoptions during the closure but is still looking for people to foster animals. To foster one, email animal.foster@austintexas.gov or go to austinanimalcenter.org.

Austin Pets Alive!,  which remains open, is also looking for people to foster animals. People can adopt pets or make monetary or in-kind donations. The organization is looking for supplies like towels, leashes, bleach, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes and more during this time.

Find out other ways you can help (and get help) in Austin here.

Update at 5:30 a.m. — New business owners count on to-go orders

Poornima Omkant and Omkant Noubad walk the currently empty lot where their food cart, Little Vibes, was set to open Friday.
Credit Julia Reihs / KUT

Poornima Omkant and Omkant Noubad had planned on opening their new food cart, Vittle Vibes, on Friday. They already started paying rent for a space on West 23rd Street and San Antonio.

But with the coronavirus pandemic, their opening date is looking questionable.

“Hopefully everything will end soon and we can open soon,” Poornima said.

Poornima, a professional chef instructor, says she knows how important sanitization is in the food industry at all times. She says keeping Vittle Vibes a small, family-owned business makes it even easier to keep sanitization practices top-notch. 

“It’s just with me and my daughter and my husband, and they’ll help me,” she said. “So it’s just going between just one person preparing everything, so we are well aware of all of the sanitization and everything so we’ll keep that going.”

The couple hopes to-go orders will help the business get started until the coronavirus pandemic is over.

Update at 5:30 a.m. — Home Depot stores change hours, remain open to meet needs

Home Depot is temporarily changing its store hours starting Thursday. While opening hours will remain the same, the stores will now close daily at 6 p.m. 

The company says it’s keeping stores open during the coronavirus pandemic so businesses and homeowners have access to “urgently needed items,” such as hot water heaters, refrigerators, batteries and electrical and plumbing repair supplies.

The adjusted hours aim to give staff additional time to restock shelves and clean.

Catch up on what happened Wednesday

A doctor who practices within St. David's HealthCare tested positive for the new coronavirus disease, St. David's chief medical officer said Wednesday.

Dr. Ken Mitchell said St. David's was working to trace any potential exposure to patients and other health care workers, and St. David’s is contacting patients and providers who may need observation or testing.

"This exposure was not the result of a breach of protocol in our hospitals, and we will continue to follow our best practices for preventing the spread of the coronavirus," he said.

Public health officials say there are 23 positive tests for COVID-19 in Austin-Travis County, up from 17 on Tuesday night. There are likely more cases already, but testing has been limited.

The city says it now has about 1,000 testing kits and is rolling out 11 new testing sites. Priority is being given to health care providers, hospital patients and people who have conditions that could lead to complications from the coronavirus. Private health care providers are also offering testing.  

People will need to be screened and have a doctor's order before getting tested.

A 64-year-old Plano man became the third person in Texas confirmed to have died from COVID-19. The second was confirmed Tuesday, a 77-year-old resident at the Texas Masonic Retirement Center in Arlington. The first was a man in his late 90s in Matagorda County.

Other local coronavirus news from Wednesday:

  • Williamson County confirmed its first four COVID-19 cases and limited gatherings to 10 people.
  • Austin-area malls including The Domain, Barton Creek Square and Lakeline Mall have closed until at least March 29.
  • Whole Foods started allowing shoppers who are 60 or older do their shopping an hour before stores open. 
  • Hays County now believes it has community spread of COVID-19.
  • Two members of the UT Austin community tested positive for COVID-19 — a UT student and the dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies.