Editor's note: As of May 21, this story is no longer being updated. Here's where you can get the latest information:
Gov. Greg Abbott has declared a statewide public health disaster as the new coronavirus continues spreading through Texas communities and the number of cases is expected to increase exponentially.
Following the lead of national leaders to extend the period of social distancing, Abbott issued an executive order March 31 that told Texans to stay home in April except for essential activity. On May 1, that order expired and Abbott allowed restaurants, retail outlets, malls and movie theaters to reopen at reduced capacity. As of May 18, barbershops, hair and tanning salons, child care facilities and other businesses can operate under certain restrictions.
Abbott and local officials have taken several steps to buttress the medical response needed to handle the growing number of Texas cases, including calling in the National Guard to help with various health care needs. But the state economy and budget have taken a dramatic hit with businesses closing and people staying home to stop the virus' spread.
The Texas Tribune has received hundreds of reader questions about COVID-19. We're answering what we can below. Send us your questions here.
The latest coronavirus updates
What does the pandemic mean for me?
What does this mean for my community?
What is the government doing?
What is the coronavirus?
How many people in Texas have coronavirus?
The Department of State Health Services reports daily data on the number of cases in Texas. On March 24, the agency said it changed its reporting system to track case counts directly from counties instead of relying on official case forms, which come in later and were causing the state’s official count to lag hundreds behind other tallies.
How do I get or give help?
There are a variety of resources for people who need help — or want to help. We've compiled a list here.
What is the state's testing capacity, and how do I know if I should get screened?
Texas' testing has lagged behind the rates at which people in other states are being screened for the new coronavirus, but the state is increasing its testing capacity. Many who have gotten tests are waiting days on end, and sometimes a week or more, for the results, according to interviews with patients and health care professionals.
We've compiled a guide to how testing in Texas works, whether people qualify, how much it costs, what typical symptoms look like and everything we know about how the virus spreads. You can visit our guide here.
Are Texans allowed to leave their homes?
In an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, Abbott told Texans to stay at home in April unless they were taking part in essential services and activities. Residents faced potential fines and jail time if they didn't comply with the governor's order, but law enforcement officers across the state primarily focused on education and issuing warnings.
Abbott let the stay-at-home order expire on May 1, letting certain businesses reopen. The state began the second phase of reopenings on May 18, allowing child care facilities, gyms and a variety of other establishments to reopen under certain restrictions. Abbott said the next round of reopenings will occur May 31, including youth summer camps and professional sports without spectators.
When do schools open back up?
At his April 17 press conference, Abbott said schools would be closed through the end of the school year. More than a month later, Abbott said Texas public school districts can offer summer school starting June 1. In-person attendance must be optional and students can not meet in groups larger than 11, according to guidance from the Texas Education Agency.
As they face millions in lost revenue, leaders of multiple large Texas universities have announced plans to resume at least some in-person classes in the fall. Texas A&M and Texas Tech both told the Tribune they are planning to play football. The University of Texas of Austin said it will reopen as scheduled in the fall, but the semester will end by Thanksgiving.
Can I still go to church?
Some churches have switched over to livestreaming their services. But technically, yes. Abbott said in his March 31 executive order that churches can remain open as long as services follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines, such as keeping attendees at least 6 feet apart.
What things can parents do to help protect our children?
The CDC recommends children take the same preventive measures as adults: washing hands, avoiding contact with those who are sick and staying up to date on vaccinations. They note there is no evidence that children are more susceptible to the virus than adults, and in China, the majority of cases — and the majority of severe symptoms — have occurred in adults.
How is the new coronavirus impacting Texas' health care systems?
Hospitals are restricting who may visit and screening outsiders for fever. Some are asking doctors and nurses to work longer hours. Others are building drive-thru testing sites, temporary triage centers and fever clinics in anticipation of high patient volumes. And all of them are urging Texans to stay as isolated as possible to slow the spread of the new coronavirus because there aren’t enough hospital beds to care for critical patients if too many people get sick at once.
Many nurses and doctors on the front lines of fighting the coronavirus pandemic don't qualify for the expanded paid sick leave protections that Congress granted in March to workers at small businesses. A national shortage of personal protective equipment has spurred fear among Texas health care workers that they may have to battle the worst of the new coronavirus outbreak without the masks, gowns and gloves needed to keep them safe.
Some small, rural Texas hospitals say they have so little protective gear that it could be exhausted in hours by even a few COVID-19 patients. Even bigger hospitals, which say their supplies are sufficient for now, don’t know how they will be able to replenish stocks as patient counts grow. Meanwhile, several businesses, from fabric shops to factories, are racing to make and manufacture personal protective equipment in Texas before supplies run out.
How has the coronavirus impacted nursing homes and state supported living centers?
Hundreds of staffers and residents have tested positive for the coronavirus, and dozens have died in Texas nursing homes, which care for some of the people most vulnerable to the virus.
Many nursing homes that previously had long records of citations related to poor infection control are facing major clusters of people with the coronavirus. At one nursing home with an outbreak, a doctor prescribed an unproven drug to treat many of the patients who have tested positive.
In addition, people close to state supported living centers worry that the state is responding too slowly to prevent outbreaks among people with developmental disabilities living in the 13 state-run facilities in Texas. Texas said it would test every resident and staff member in nursing homes, but residents and patients in the state-run centers will only be tested if they are symptomatic or have potentially been exposed.
How will the state's economy be affected?
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar said April 7 that the state economy is in a recession, but exact figures of the economic hit the state and its residents will take aren't yet known. The answer largely depends on how long the pandemic lasts. The information that is available so far suggests the economic impact will be bad, both for the state economy as a whole and for Texans whose jobs have been affected.
Large industries that help power the Texas economy — like the oil and gas sector and airlines — are facing dramatic revenue drops, especially after the price for a barrel of oil went negative for the first time April 20. Experts also fear COVID-19 will hurt trade in the state. The comptroller said the state will be able to cover spending for the rest of the year, but the state budget will also likely have to be adjusted downward by "several billion dollars."
More than 1.8 million Texans have filed for unemployment since Gov. Abbott first declared a statewide emergency. While the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics said the state had a 4.7% unemployment rate for March, analysts say the rate could be greater than 10%.
What measures are being taken to reopen the Texas economy?
Abbott announced a series of executive orders meant to restart the Texas economy during an April 17 press conference, including loosening restrictions on nonessential surgeries, retail stores and state parks. Abbott also formed a "statewide strike force,” which will oversee a phased reopening of Texas and develop plans to restart the economy.
Hospitals began performing nonessential surgeries again April 22, but they are not allowed to deplete personal protective equipment and must keep at least 25% of their capacity available for patients with COVID-19. State parks reopened April 20 with restrictions on visitors, including a requirement to wear a mask and a limit on gatherings of more than five people.
After Abbott signed an executive order on April 27, some retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls reopened at 25% capacity on May 1 even if local officials ordered them closed. On May 8, barbershops, hair and tanning salons were allowed to reopen under certain restrictions. If Texas doesn't see a "flare up of COVID-19," Abbott said more business reopenings could come as soon as May 18.
How is the coronavirus impacting court hearings and prisons?
Hundreds of inmates and guards have tested positive for the coronavirus. The prisons where people have tested positive for the virus are locked down until 14 days after a positive test.
Some Texans are stuck in jail because many court proceedings have been paused, including jury trials and plea deal hearings. Some local officials have moved to release low-level defendants accused of nonviolent crimes from jails, which are especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. As of May 2, more than 70% of Texas prisoners tested had positive results for the coronavirus. On May 12, the state announced widespread testing of state prisoners for the new coronavirus.
Abbott signed an order March 29 that prohibits inmates accused or previously convicted of violent crimes from being released from jails if they can’t pay bail, while inmates who can pay bail can walk free. A state judge blocked the order on April 10 after Harris County judges, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and other criminal defense organizations challenged it as an overreach of Abbott’s executive power and for unconstitutionally discriminating against poor defendants. However, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the order.
In a separate lawsuit, two older Texas inmates say the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is failing to protect prisoners at a geriatric prison near College Station, prompting a federal judge to issue a temporary order April 16 requiring the prison to provide hand sanitizer and face masks to inmates. After the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the federal judge's order, inmates filed their appeal with the Supreme Court on May 4.
How has the coronavirus impacted the upcoming elections?
Texas election officials are considering how to safely host voters at the ballot boxes — if voters will even show up for the July 14 primary runoff election. Gov. Greg Abbott extended the early voting period for the upcoming election so it will begin June 29 instead of July 6 so “election officials can implement appropriate social distancing and safe hygiene practices.”
Local administrators are considering a variety of options, including expanding curbside voting, adding sanitizing and protective gear and implementing plexiglass or plastic shields at polling place check-in stations. But they’re not sure if they can expand one tactic embraced by many other states — voting by mail.
Individual Texas voters, Democrats and civil rights organizations have asked state and federal courts to allow Texans to vote by mail in July. In mid-April, one Travis County district judge ruled in favor of providing absentee ballots to voters who cite their risk of exposure to the coronavirus as a disability under the Texas election code.
As the courts consider the litany of legal challenges, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has asked the Texas Supreme Court to tell local officials to follow his interpretation that fear of contracting the coronavirus isn't a legally valid reason for voters to request absentee ballots. The Texas Supreme Court put the ruling on hold after a state appeals court upheld the district judge’s order. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals also temporarily blocked a federal district judge’s ruling, which would have allowed for anyone in Texas who wants to avoid transmission of the virus to qualify for a mail-in ballot.
What is the government doing to help those financially impacted?
Congress' CARES Act will cost more than $2 trillion and aims to support the medical response to the pandemic, keep businesses afloat long enough to avoid more layoffs and give money to Americans making less than a certain income. The legislation also expands unemployment insurance and suspends payments of federally backed student loans.
The Texas Public Utility Commission has banned utilities from cutting off power and water services to Texans who have lost jobs and income during the COVID-19 crisis at least through mid-September. Several local governments have also issued various orders that prohibit cutting off certain utilities. Check with your local government agency to see what orders have been put in place.
To help renters, especially those who have been laid off or whose hours have been cut, the Texas Supreme Court issued an order halting eviction proceedings statewide until May 18. At the end of the period, the chief justice can choose to renew the order. Several cities and counties have also issued eviction moratoriums that may extend past the statewide order. Check with your city or county officials for details.
Texas is providing $50 million in loans to small businesses, Abbott said April 13. The U.S. Small Business Administration previously offered $350 billion in long-term, low-interest loans for small-business owners, but the funds dried up April 16 after two weeks. On April 23, Congress temporarily replenished the federal small-business fund with $320 billion.
As part of the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program, the federal government has also given Texas permission to distribute emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to families with children eligible for free and reduced-cost school meals.
What is Texas doing to help address unemployment claims?
The number of Texans applying for unemployment relief increased by more than 1,600% over two weeks in March, which overwhelmed the Texas Workforce Commission's phone lines and website and caused delays for thousands of Texas. In response, the commission hired 1,000 new employees, opened two more call centers, extended operating hours and increased server capacity.
Texas has also relaxed requirements for state unemployment benefits by removing the work search requirement and declining to reduce future benefits for people who have been overpaid. However, the executive director of the Texas Workforce Commission told lawmakers the work-search requirements may be reinstated once restaurants and retail stores can open at 50% capacity. While the unemployment benefits don’t apply to all Texans, including people who are self-employed or work on a contract basis, many of them can seek relief through the federal coronavirus aid bill.
What’s the fatality rate for coronavirus?
"Globally, about 3.4% of reported COVID-19 cases have died. By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than 1% of those infected," World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said March 3. The seasonal flu has a mortality rate of about 0.1%.
According to a paper published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the fatality rates for the elderly or people with other underlying health conditions can be much higher — as high as 14% for people over the age of 80.
It is important to note that data is still being gathered, so the fatality rate for COVID-19 could change, according to PBS NewsHour.
How does the coronavirus spread?
The virus spreads primarily through droplets from an infected person who coughs or sneezes, according to the WHO. It may be spread by people who are asymptomatic or through surfaces with the virus on it, but this is not believed to be the main mode of transmission, according to the CDC.
To prevent the spread, the CDC recommends regularly washing your hands, avoiding contact with people who are sick and practicing social distancing.
How long does the virus live on surfaces?
Studies suggest it may last for a few hours or up to several days, depending on the type of surface and the temperature and humidity of the room, according to the WHO. Tests by the U.S. government and scientists found it can last up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.
How long does it take for symptoms to start showing?
The time between catching the coronavirus and showing symptoms — the incubation period — ranges from one to 14 days, most commonly five days, according to the WHO. The WHO plans to update that estimate as more information is gathered.
Who is most at risk?
Research shows the people most at risk are elderly and those with serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes or lung disease, according to the CDC.
There isn’t enough data yet to determine the risk for pregnant women, but researchers hope to gather information on risk for these women, the likelihood of sickness compared with women who aren't pregnant and whether the virus passes from mother to baby.
For now, Sonja Rasmussen, a pediatrics and epidemiology professor with University of Florida Health, advises pregnant women, like everyone else, to “avoid being exposed — stay away from sick people, wash hands frequently, avoid touching their face and disinfect contaminated surfaces."
What do social distancing, community spread and pandemic really mean?
Social distancing is deliberately increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Staying at least 6 feet away, working from home and avoiding crowds will help stop or slow the spread of the virus and put less strain on health care resources, or “flatten the curve”.
Community spread is when someone becomes infected without having contact with another infected person or traveling to an area where the infection was documented.
According to the CDC, an epidemic is an outbreak of a disease beyond what the population in an area usually expects. A pandemic is when an epidemic spreads to multiple countries or continents. On March 11, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Edgar Walters contributed to this report.