March 13 Updates: COVID-19 Cases Reported In Austin; Abbott Issues Disaster Declaration

Mar 13, 2020

We'll share live updates on how the coronavirus is affecting Austin and Central Texas throughout the day. Have a news tip? Email us at news@kut.org.

Update at 10:17 a.m. Saturday – Austin ISD school board passes emergency resolution

Austin Independent School District's school board convened an emergency meeting Friday night to discuss the district's plan for addressing COVID-19.

AISD canceled classes early Friday after the city announced the first confirmed cases in Austin. The board met to discuss what to do if school still needs to be canceled after spring break, which starts next week. 

The board passed a resolution Friday that allows Superintendent Paul Cruz to make decisions quicker than normal. Those could include:

  • Waiving the traditional purchase requirements. This would allow the superintendent to approve purchases that keep sanitizing efforts going and possible technology purchases for online learning.
  • Keeping payroll going for employees who would normally not get paid when school is out.
  • Applying for a waiver with the Texas Education Agency so AISD doesn't violate state and federal law for how many days students should be in school. 

Earlier in the day, AISD announced it would still serve lunch Friday and would set up food distribution sites across the city if school is still canceled after spring break. 

Update at 9:17 p.m. – Health officials ask organizers to reconsider hosting big events, issue requirements for food establishments

Austin Public Health is asking organizers to strongly consider canceling or postponing events where more than 250 people are expected to attend, given the confirmation of three presumptive cases of COVID-19 in the area.

“The health and safety of Austin-Travis County residents and visitors is our highest priority and today we’re adopting a regional strategy to help minimize the spread of this disease,” Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority for the agency, said in a statement released Friday night. “We are looking for opportunities to mitigate risk while keeping businesses operating. If we can find the right balance we can better sustain our community.”

Health experts have recommended social distancing as one of the primary means of stopping the spread of the virus.

The request is voluntary, but the agency said stronger recommendations are being considered.

Austin Public Health also issued emergency rules for restaurants and other food establishments to help reduce exposure to the coronavirus. The rules, effective now, require them to:

  • Display “Help Prevent Disease” signs provided by Austin Public Health in prominent public locations.
  • Make hand sanitizer available to the general public and to patrons.
  • Disinfect and sanitize commonly touched surfaces and nonfood-contact surfaces of equipment of the establishment at least once every hour.
  • Adopt and implement a policy that provides for the immediate exclusion of food handlers from duties if they develop a fever greater than or equal to 100.4 degrees during their shift.

Establishments that don't follow these rules, which expire July 12, could lose their permits.

Update at 4:48 p.m. – Capital Metro prepares for COVID-19 impacts

Capital Metro suspended service on the UT Shuttle on Friday, and is working on scenarios in case more service changes are needed. Ridership noticeably decreased after UT Austin and the Austin Independent School District suspended classes, according to Chief Operating Officer Dottie Watkins.

“Already, we've seen people start to modify their behavior, and we'll be watching closely and taking that information into account in the coming days and weeks,” she said. 

Even before the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Central Texas were announced, Cap Metro had stepped up disinfection of its vehicles. They are thoroughly cleaned each time they’re brought back to the garage. Watkins said officials are trying to see if the logistics can work out so the frequency can be increased.  

“We’re also really stressing to our riders and to our employees to follow the guidance of Austin Public Health,” Watkins said. “We want folks to wash their hands, we want folks to avoid touching their face after they've been in public spaces, we want them to stay home if they’re sick. We're working closely with our partners in the city and the county to make sure that message is going out.”

Cap Metro is updating a special web page with the latest information. Watkins also encourages riders to sign up for service alerts through text or email.

Update at 4:08 p.m. – School sports and competitions canceled statewide

The University Interscholastic League says it's suspending all contests starting March 16 until March 29.

“We are urging our member schools and their communities to stay vigilant and take every possible precaution to remain safe and healthy,” said UIL Executive Director Dr. Charles Breithaupt in a press release.

The organization says practices and rehearsals can still be held at local districts’ discretion.

Update at 3:43 p.m. – Many events have been canceled and businesses are closed

Austin ISD and UT Austin both canceled classes Friday, and UT extended spring break for at least an extra week. Austin Community College also said it would be closed until Monday and that spring break would be extended to March 29. 

The Thinkery said it would close until March 22. 

“As a hands-on learning environment that caters to children and families, we're committed to operating in a responsible way that promotes a healthy community and adheres to the best advice of public health officials at the local, state, and national levels,” said Patricia Young Brown, Thinkery’s chief operating officer.

The ABC Kite Festival, which was scheduled for March 29, also announced it would be cancelled.

At least one downtown Austin music venue is canceling its weekend events. Barracuda announced it would cancel all its events through Monday, March 23.

On Thursday, Rodeo Austin and Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion both announced they were called off. 

Update at 3 p.m. – Austin Energy will suspend utility shutoffs

Austin Energy announced Friday it would suspend all shutoffs of utilities due to unpaid bills since some people may lose wages during the COVID-19 crisis. For most customers, this includes electricity, water, trash collection and recycling.

Austin Energy spokesperson Jennifer Herber said that since more people are likely working from home, energy bills could also be higher and more unaffordable.

“People are going to be at home longer than they normally are, so they’re actually going to be using more electricity, more water,” she said. “Your bill might be a little bit higher.”

Those who have trouble paying a utility bill can get on a deferred-payment plan or receive direct financial assistance from the city.

Update at 2:52 p.m. – Travis County evictions put on pause

Travis County justices of the peace issued an order putting eviction hearings on hold until at least April 1. The move is intended to prevent people who may not be able to pay their rent during the coronavirus outbreak from being kicked out of their homes.

Hourly workers should not have to choose between "going into work sick and spreading the virus or not having a home," Justice of the Peace for Precinct 5 Nick Chu said.

Read more from Audrey McGlinchy here.

Update at 2:39 p.m. – Advocates and election officials say mail-in ballots could be key 

As the coronavirus spreads in Texas, older people and people with underlying health issues are being asked to isolate themselves, which could make voting in upcoming elections tricky.

Election officials and advocates say Texas' system of voting by mail could be key in the coming runoff elections and local contests in May, but they hope the state provides more clarity on who exactly qualifies for the program, which is underutilized statewide.

Read more from Ashley Lopez here.

Update at 2:30 p.m. – Trump declares a national emergency

President Trump declared a national emergency Friday afternoon amid growing concern about the coronavirus outbreak across the United States. The move, widely expected, frees up $50 billion for states to deal with the crisis.

Read more from NPR here.

Update at 2:19 p.m. – Austin Public Health announces a third case of COVID-19 Travis County

Austin Public Health tweeted that it received a third presumptive positive case of the COVID-19 in Austin-Travis County. The person is a woman in her 60s. The agency said it believes the case is travel related and is looking at the risk of a possible spread.

Early Friday, the health agency announced two presumptive positive cases.

Read more here

Update at 1:38 p.m. – UT President Greg Fenves' wife tests positive for COVID-19

UT Austin President Greg Fenves' wife, Carmel, has tested positive for COVID-19, he said in a letter sent to the UT community Friday.

He added that a second member of his family, who works at UT, also is presumed to have COVID-19.

"I have now been tested for the virus, and the three of us are in self-isolation," he wrote.

Read more from Claire McInerny here.

Update at 1:25 p.m. – Schools offer curbside lunches for students

Many school districts in Central Texas closed Friday as the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were announced. This brings up a huge issue for many families in Central Texas – they lose access to free meals for their kids. In Austin ISD, for example, 53% of students get free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunch. 

AISD still served lunch today. Parents drove to one of 14 schools and picked up pre-packaged meals. The district said it will do this again starting March 23 if school is still canceled.

People who want to help families get groceries during spring break next week and possibly beyond can donate to the Central Texas Food Bank.

Read more here

Update at 12:22 – Gov. Abbott declares a state of emergency

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

"I am at this moment declaring a state disaster for all counties in the state of Texas," he said at a news conference Friday. 

The governor said the declaration could boost the state's capacity to test "thousands" by next week.

State health officials also announced the opening of a drive-through testing facility in San Antonio, and Abbott said the state is working with officials in Austin and Dallas to open similar facilities by next week.

Those drive-through testing locations will, at least initially, prioritize first-responders and high-risk patients, the governor said.

Read more from Andrew Weber here.

Update at 4:31 a.m. – Austin announces first cases of COVID-19

Two presumptive positive cases of the coronavirus disease COVID-19 were confirmed in Austin early Friday, city health officials said. The cases are the first confirmed in Central Texas.

Austin Public Health said it did not believe the first two people — a man in his 60s and a woman in her 30s — were infected through community spread, meaning the cases did not come from an unknown infected person they had contact with. 

The man and the woman are not related, Dr. Mark Escott, Austin's interim medical authority, said. The man, who is critically ill, was transferred to St. David's Medical Center from another hospital in the state and was tested after staff became suspicious he had coronavirus, Escott said.

Read more about Central Texas' first cases here.