COVID-19 March 27 Updates: Austin Reports First Death, Texas Cities Can't Restrict Gun Sales

Mar 27, 2020

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

Update at 5:49 p.m. – Real estate group slams Austin’s limitations on construction

An Austin real estate industry group is haranguing the city over its decision to limit commercial and residential construction as a result of concerns over COVID-19.

In a statement Friday, the Real Estate Council of Austin said the limitations outlined in Mayor Steve Adler's shelter-in-place order go "too far" and that the city should consider paring back some of those restrictions.

"Implementing this construction ban will devastate construction workers and small businesses, including large communities of color, skilled and unskilled trades, labor and their families," the group's CEO, Dianne Bangle, said. "These communities will permanently leave our city to find work in other cities in this state and those cities will allow them to continue to work safely and support their families while building critical housing and infrastructure.”

Update at 5:27 p.m. – Economic firm estimate puts Austin’s job losses at 77,000 

An economic forecast suggests Austin could lose as many as 77,000 jobs as a result of COVID-19.

The Perryman Group analysis suggests economic losses in the Austin area could eclipse $6.4 billion as a result of the economic shutdown caused by the pandemic. Statewide, the firm projects Texas could see more than $100 billion in losses because of COVID-19 and the cratering of the oil market.

Projections for economic losses in Dallas and Houston far exceed those in Austin. The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is expected to lose nearly $26 billion, while the Houston area could see $27 billion in losses. The analysis puts job losses in Dallas at 282,000, with nearly 256,000 projected job losses in Houston. The Perryman Group projection puts total statewide job losses at more than 1 million.

Update at 4:59 p.m. – Ride Austin suspends operations 

Local ride-hailing service Ride Austin says it will discontinue services Monday, citing concerns of spreading the new coronavirus.

"Given how quickly the virus has spread, we must make the responsible decision in order to protect both our drivers and riders," the company said in an announcement. "We are not closing permanently; rather, the suspension is temporary, and we will announce our restart date when we have more information."

Ride Austin emerged in 2016 as a local alternative to Uber and Lyft when both ride-share platforms left Austin because of the city's background check requirement for drivers. A state law later superseded that local ordinance.

Update at 4:48 p.m. – County jail sees fewer cases of COVID-19-related isolation

Seventeen inmates at the Travis County Jail are being isolated as a result of coronavirus concerns.

The Travis County Sheriff’s Office says only some of those inmates are symptomatic. Others did not answer medical screening questions as they were booked into jail and were isolated as a precaution.

Earlier this week, the sheriff’s office had 20 people in isolation.

Update at 2:43 p.m. — First Austin-Travis County coronavirus patient dies

A woman in her 70s has died from the coronavirus, marking the first death of an Austin-Travis County resident from the virus, Austin Public Health said this afternoon.

The woman had significant underlying health conditions, APH said. The city said it would not release any additional information on the woman.

“We are facing a historic public health challenge,” said Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority. “We underscore the importance of personal responsibility to help stop the spread of this disease. Stay home except for essential activities and follow social distancing guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19.”  

"Most positive cases in Austin-Travis County are occurring in people under 40 years old, which means a spread among our healthiest population will be deadliest for our at-risk population," the city said in a statement.

The CDC says 80% of deaths in the United States are associated with people over the age of 65.

Update at 1:38 p.m. – Texas cities and counties can't restrict gun sales

Gun sales can continue even as cities and counties curb nonessential business in light of COVID-19, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said.

In an opinion issued Friday, Paxton said even though Gov. Greg Abbott's disaster declaration empowers cities and counties to restrict some activity, state law doesn't allow for the restriction of gun sales.

“State law provides several emergency powers to local governments to control movement within their region during a disaster, which serves our communities well during public health events like the one we’re fighting now," he wrote Friday. "However, local regulation of the sale, possession, and ownership of firearms is specifically prohibited under Texas law. Under our laws, every Texan retains their right to purchase and possess firearms.” 

Read more from Andrew Weber.

Update at 12:03 p.m. – UT finalizing how to handle grades as it prepares for online classes

UT Austin is preparing to start online classes Monday, after closing campus because of COVID-19. UT has encouraged all students to return home if possible, and those who need housing assistance are working with the university. All classes will be conducted remotely, and only essential research is happening, with all participants keeping distance from each other. 

Larry Singell, senior vice provost for resource management, says UT is trying to finalize how it will handle grades for the rest of the semester. He said the university is trying to give students maximum flexibility, and it will likely still have the option to give students grades on an A-F scale if they want that for their transcript.

​"The ability of students to be able to drop is being extended to the end of the term,” he said. “There are opportunities for students to change their grade really up to the last moment from potentially a grading option to a pass, no pass." 

– Claire McInerny   

Update at 7:57 a.m. — New Braunfels man dies from the coronavirus in Austin hospital

A man in his 40s from New Braunfels died Thursday afternoon at Ascension Seton Medical Center in Austin from COVID-19, Comal County said in a statement. The City of Austin said the man's death is not considered a Travis County case.

The New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung newspaper spoke to the man's daughter, who identified him as 44-year-old Adolph "T.J." Mendez. She told the newspaper her father had no underlying health conditions and only received a positive diagnosis on Tuesday.

The man's positive test results had already been included in Comal County's total of eight confirmed cases. The county says four remain active. 

“Our hearts, as well as our thoughts and our prayers, go out to this man’s family and friends,” County Judge Sherman Krause said. “This tragic news emphasizes the need for all of us to make sure we are taking every effort to maintain social distancing measures and protecting ourselves, our loved ones and the most vulnerable among us from contracting COVID-19.” 

Update at 7:20 a.m. — Bastrop County school districts extend school closures 

Bastrop ISD – in coordination with other Bastrop County school district superintendents from Elgin, McDade and Smithville – is extending school closures through April 19 to protect students and staff from the spread of COVID-19.

The district says it will continue to offer free breakfast and lunch to families during this time. Curbside pickup is available between 7:30 a.m. and 12 p.m. at multiple locations – a list can be found on BISD's website.

Starting Monday, the district will launch an at-home learning site with optional activities for each grade level. Teachers will use Google classroom to give graded instruction beginning April 6.

Update at 5 a.m. — YMCA of Austin provides child care for essential workers

Two YMCA of Austin locations are offering child care for children of health care workers, first responders and other essential members of the workforce during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Southwest Family YMCA at 6219 Oakclaire Dr. offers care Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and starting March 30, the East Communities YMCA at 5315 Ed Bluestein Blvd. will provide care during the same hours. It costs $50 per day at both locations.

Children ages 3 through 12 can attend, and they are required to bring a sack lunch. Proper social distancing will be maintained at all times, the YMCA says, and staff will be taking children’s temperatures when they’re dropped off.

Catch up on what happened yesterday

UT Austin report shows city needs to decrease human interaction by 90%

A new report from UT found that if everyone in Austin reduces their human interaction by 90%, the city’s hospitals would be able to treat everyone who gets sick.

If people reduce their interaction by only 50% or 75%, hospitals in the five-county area around Austin will not have enough ventilators and beds to treat all COVID-19 patients.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt thanked the community, during a press conference Thursday, for reducing personal and business interactions by 50%, but she said we all need to work toward reducing it to 90%.

“We can do this if every one of us, before we leave the house, asks ourselves: 'Is what I’m about to do essential to the health and safety of myself, my family, my community?'” Eckhardt said.  “If it’s not, stay home.”

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Austin-Travis County increased to 137 Thursday. The city published a dashboard that breaks down the cases by age and gender. Of the confirmed cases, 75 are people in their 20s and 30s, and 42 are people in their 40s and 50s. 

Other local coronavirus news from Thursday:

  • Austin City Council members unanimously approved an ordinance Thursday adding another step to the eviction process, thereby slowing a potential force-out for tenants who are unable to pay rent because their wages have dried up.
  • Gov. Greg Abbott ordered all people traveling to Texas by air from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as New Orleans, to self-quarantine for 14 days. 
  • People accused of nonviolent felonies in Travis County can now be automatically released on bond – on the condition that they return to court.