COVID-19 March 31 Updates: Abbott Issues Statewide Restrictions, Abortion Ban Can Continue

Mar 31, 2020

This post has local news on the coronavirus pandemic from Tuesday, March 31. 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 6:51 p.m. – St. David's issues new mask rules effective immediately

All staff and providers in patient care areas at St. David's HealthCare facilities are now required to wear medical masks, the health system announced Tuesday. Previously, masks were required only in areas with suspected or positive COVID-19 cases.

“Our top priority is protecting our patients, clinicians, nurses and colleagues so we can best serve Austin and surrounding regions during this pandemic,” Ken Mitchell, M.D., chief medical officer of St. David’s HealthCare, said in a statement. “With guidelines continuing to evolve and community spread increasing, this was the appropriate time to take this step."

St. David's said it currently has enough personal protective equipment (PPE), but that facilities would try to conserve and reuse the equipment if possible.

Update at 4:32 p.m. – Gov. Abbott issues statewide order restricting nonessential activity

Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order Tuesday requiring Texans to limit personal interactions that could lead to the spread of COVID-19. The order also states schools will remain closed until at least May 4.

Abbott said people can still leave their homes to access essential services, like groceries or medicine, and go outside for exercise.

The governor said religious services can continue, but should be conducted remotely or – if held in person – should follow presidential or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Any law enforcement officer can enforce the order; violations are punishable by a fine or jail time of up to 180 days, he said.

The order lasts until April 30.

Read more from Marisa Charpentier here.

Update at 3:28 p.m. – Texas' temporary ban on abortions can continue

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily halted a lower court ruling that stopped a ban on abortions in Texas during the coronavirus outbreak.

The lower court judge said the ban raised concerns Texas was violating the constitutional rights of women in the state, as well as causing “irreparable harm” to those seeking the procedure.

The Fifth Circuit disagreed, saying the ban could continue while the case moves forward.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had called the ban an effort to “preserve desperately needed medical supplies for the health care professionals combatting the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.”  

Read more from Ashley Lopez here.

Update at 12:42 p.m. — 70 spring-breakers chartered a flight to Mexico. Now 28 of them have the coronavirus.

Seventy young adults are being investigated for COVID-19 exposure after taking a chartered plane to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for spring break roughly 10 days ago, Austin Public Health says.

Of those 70, 28 have tested positive for COVID-19 and dozens are under investigation by the public health authority.

The individuals in their 20s flew out together, then took separate flights back, which allowed for the spread of the virus, APH said.

Read more from Andrew Weber here.

Update at 11:31 a.m. — Texas attorney general appeals federal judge's ruling on state abortion ban

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed an appeal this morning of a federal judge's decision on Texas' abortion ban during the coronavirus pandemic.

In his appeal, Paxton said, "Abortion providers who refuse to follow state law are demonstrating a clear disregard for Texans suffering from this medical crisis."

U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel in Austin had ruled Monday that state officials can't restrict abortion providers from offering the procedure to their patients.

Texas officials banned abortions last week as part of what they say is an effort to halt medical procedures that are “not immediately medically necessary” during the spread of the virus.

In his order, Judge Yeakel said the ban raised concerns the state was violating the constitutional rights of women in the state, as well as causing “irreparable harm” to those seeking the procedure.

Read more from Ashley Lopez on the judge's decision here.

Update at 10:53 a.m. — Austin Sobering Center will house homeless Austinites at-risk of COVID-19

City and county officials have set aside hotel rooms and the Austin Sobering Center to quarantine or isolate homeless Austinites who have or present symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

With the approval of Travis County commissioners, the Sobering Center will immediately divert its operations toward the quarantine effort. 

Following social distancing guidelines, the center would house no more than 15 people who are at high risk of COVID-19, but have tested negative.

The city has finalized or is finalizing agreements to increase shelter capacity as well, by using hotel rooms to quarantine or isolate homeless people who have COVID-19 symptoms.

Read more from KUT's Andrew Weber here.

Update at 6 a.m. — ATX for ATX campaign shares stories of support during COVID-19 crisis

Austin and Travis County are spearheading a campaign that spotlights community efforts to help one other during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They’re asking residents to share stories over social media with the hashtag #ATXforATX and on the website SpeakUp Austin! By sharing stories, the campaign aims to help connect people in need with information and resources throughout the community.

“Whether you are helping as an individual, with friends, neighbors, as part of a community of faith, or a business, please share your stories to inform, empower and inspire,” the website says. “No act is too small or too big. We’re all in this together, just six feet apart. ATX for ATX.”

The website currently showcases several community efforts, like Tito’s Handmade Vodka making and donating hand sanitizer and local groups sewing masks to aid health care workers. 

Update at 6 a.m. — Bastrop County announces ‘stay home and stay safe’ order

A stay-at-home order goes into effect for Bastrop County on Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. The order is set to last through April 30.

The order asks residents to “stay home and stay safe” from COVID-19. It limits social gatherings to no more than 10 people, requires stores to implement procedures that help limit the spread of the virus and puts purchasing limits on certain items such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

The county’s Office of Emergency Management posted the full order on its Facebook page. There are six confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the county, officials say. 

Catch up on what happened yesterday

Austin Public Health is setting up facilities to house nursing home patients with COVID-19

Austin Public Health announced Monday that its new nursing home task force is setting up sites to house nursing home residents who test positive for COVID-19. The city says these isolation facilities will give COVID-19 patients who don’t need hospitalization a safe place to recover while staying away from other nursing home residents and staff.

Dr. Liam Fry, who leads the nursing home task force, said the goal is to prevent outbreaks in nursing homes that other areas, like Washington, have experienced. 

Two nursing home residents in the community tested positive for the disease late last week, according to the city, and officials are investigating how the patients, who are hospitalized, were exposed. 

While the number of affected nursing home patients may be low now, Fry said she doesn’t expect it to stay that way.

Other local coronavirus news from Monday:

  • A federal judge has temporarily blocked Texas’ ban on abortions during the coronavirus pandemic in the state.
  • Austin ISD is now allowing parents to pick up meals without their children being present in the car. Previously, a child had to be with the parent to receive a meal through the meal pickup program.
  • The Texas Health and Human Services Commission will automatically renew SNAP – the federal food assistance program – and Medicaid benefits, so existing clients can continue coverage during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • An Austin Police Department employee has tested positive for COVID-19.

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