Wednesday’s biggest developments
- State reports almost 4,000 cases and 58 deaths
- Another execution stopped
- El Paso strengthens stay-at-home order
- Laredo residents must cover their faces outside homes
Report: Total of UT-Austin students testing positive after spring break trip now at 44
[9:30 p.m.] The total number of University of Texas at Austin students who have tested positive for the new coronavirus after a spring break trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, now stands at 44, according to KVUE-TV.
On Tuesday, the city of Austin said that a group of about 70 people departed to Mexico about two weeks ago on a chartered flight. Some of them returned on commercial flights. At the time of the city's news release, 28 people in the group had tested positive for the virus.
Mexico was not under a federal travel advisory when the group traveled there, but Austin Public Health had indicated that all nonessential international travel should be avoided, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. — Stacy Fernández
In Weslaco, groups of no more than 2 can only enter businesses
[8:35 p.m.] Starting Thursday, no more than two people can enter a business together in the Rio Grande Valley city of Weslaco.
Eric Hernandez, a Weslaco Police Department spokesperson, said the department's order is a result of overwhelmed grocery stores and shopping centers where several family members were going in to shop for a single household.
“There’s an unnecessary risk there, not only to other shoppers but the family itself,” Hernandez said.
Violations of the order could result in fines of up to $1,000 and six months in jail, as outlined by the governor’s emergency order. Exceptions to the order are based on officer discretion, Hernandez said. — Stacy Fernández
El Paso strengthens stay-at-home order
[8:20 p.m.] The city of El Paso updated its previous stay-at-home order Wednesday with stronger restrictions on gatherings and a requirement that people who travel more than 100 miles outside city limits must self-quarantine for two weeks upon their return.
Beginning Thursday, most public and private gatherings of any number are prohibited, and parks, pools and recreational areas will be closed, including hike-and-bike trails. Red Sands, a popular swath of desert used for off-roading, will also be closed.
Officials also announced that the number of COVID-19 cases in El Paso jumped to 68, an increase of 18 from Tuesday.
Mayor Dee Margo said the new directives are necessary because a lot of El Pasoans were not closely following the previous order.
Violating the policy could result in a $1,000 fine and/or 180 days of jail time.
Essential travel will still be permitted, and essential businesses will remain open. Outdoor exercise is still permitted, but bikers, walkers and joggers must remain 6 feet apart at all times. The order also allows construction projects to continue, but with specific conditions. Employers must stagger shifts, provide additional toilets and take the temperature of every worker after each shift. — Julián Aguilar
Texas reports 3,997 cases and 58 deaths
[2 p.m.] Texas reported 731 more cases of the new coronavirus Wednesday, an increase of about 22% over the previous day, bringing the total number of known cases to 3,997. A total of 13 new counties reported their first cases Wednesday. More than half of the state’s 254 counties have reported at least one case.
Harris County has reported the most cases, 680, followed by Dallas County, which has reported 631 cases.
The state is also reporting 17 additional deaths, bringing the statewide total to 58. That’s an increase of about 41% from what the state reported Tuesday. Both Harris County and Dallas County reported two additional deaths. Dallas County reported 13 deaths in total, more than any other county. Bexar County reported four additional deaths, bringing its total to nine — the second-highest county total in the state.
As of Wednesday, at least 47,857 tests have been conducted in Texas. — Carla Astudillo
12 confirmed coronavirus cases at San Antonio nursing home
[1:38 p.m.] Six patients and six staff members at the Southeast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center tested positive for COVID-19, San Antonio officials said Wednesday. One of the residents who tested positive died Tuesday.
All residents at the facility have been tested, and 74 are waiting to receive their test results. Staff received a one-week supply of personal protective equipment, as well as training on proper deep cleaning and sterilization in attempts to hinder further spread of the virus.
After a positive test for the coronavirus at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, San Antonio partners notified nursing homes in the area to be on guard for potential outbreaks. After an uptick in patients with respiratory illness, the city’s fire department and metropolitan health district were able to “respond rapidly,” according to a press release.
“Knowing that these nursing facilities are a very vulnerable population, we have been prepared to respond and mitigate any potential COVID-19 outbreak within a nursing facility since the events at the Life Care facility in Kirkland, Washington,” San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said in a press release.
This isn’t the first cluster of confirmed cases at a Texas nursing home facility. Last week, six residents and two employees at Lubbock’s Whisperwood Nursing & Rehabilitation Center tested positive. On March 18, an elderly man died of COVID-19 at a local hospital after living for a short time at the Heights of Tomball nursing home northwest of Houston. — Clare Proctor
Houston leases hotels to house quarantined first responders and homeless
[12:13 p.m.] Two Houston hotels are available to house people needing to be quarantined. Members of the City Council agreed to enter a three-month lease agreement with the hotels and has 186 rooms available, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Wednesday.
The space will primarily house municipal workers and first responders, as well as the city’s homeless population, Turner said.
A third hotel is being used as well, mostly for police officers and firefighters, and the city will solidify an agreement with the third hotel next week.
“If someone is waiting on test results or tested positive, and they have nowhere else to go, they can stay here,” Turner said.
Turner anticipates that all the costs, estimated to be about $200 a day for housing, medical security and food, will be reimbursable by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. — Clare Proctor
“Remain in Mexico” hearings postponed until May
[11:33 a.m.] Court hearings for asylum seekers in the Migrant Protection Protocols program have been postponed through May 1, the Trump administration announced Wednesday.
The proceedings were on hold through April 22, but the extension was necessary due to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Justice said in a statement.
The program, also known as “remain in Mexico,” requires that asylum seekers wait in Mexico for their hearings in American courtrooms. More than 60,000 migrants, mainly Central Americans and Cubans, have been sent to Mexico under the program, including more than 20,000 in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez area.
Immigration attorneys and judges, and even some Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, have been calling for the postponement of all immigration hearings. The groups argue that cramming migrants, court employees and attorneys in small courtrooms makes social distancing impossible. — Julían Aguilar
Another execution stopped
Fabian Hernandez, 44, was set to be executed Apr. 23 for the 2006 El Paso shooting deaths of his estranged wife, Renee Urbina Hernandez, and her boyfriend, Arturo Fonseca. It is the third execution the state's high criminal court has stayed since the virus reached Texas. The court is approaching the issue on a case-by-case basis after those with upcoming execution dates file motions for stays.
In two earlier orders halting March executions, the court said it was issuing 60-day stays because "of the current health crisis and the enormous resources needed to address that emergency." In Hernandez's stay, the court did not list a reason, simply stating it was staying the execution for the same 60-day period. After that time, El Paso officials can again request an execution date.
Hernandez's stay was issued after his attorney requested his execution be stopped because of the virus. In the two previously halted executions, out of Tarrant and Smith counties, the district attorneys opposed delaying the executions. El Paso officials, however, had not filed any argument in Hernandez's case, according to a court docket.
One other Texas execution is scheduled in April, and five more are on the calendar through September. — Jolie McCullough
Laredo City Council forcing residents to cover their noses and mouths outside homes
[8:04 a.m.] Starting Thursday, Laredo residents will have to cover their mouth and nose when entering any building that is not their home, according to the Laredo Morning Times. This includes offices, public transit and outdoor gas stations, per a Laredo City Council vote.
Those in violation of the order, which will continue through April 30, could face a fine of up to $1,000 if their mouths and noses aren’t covered with masks, bandanas, scarves or other fabric.
The Laredo City Council also voted to extend the city’s curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. to pertain to all citizens, not just juveniles. In compliance with Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide order, residents can still exercise and walk pets after 10 p.m. as long as they comply with social distancing guidelines. — Clare Proctor
Paying rent another challenge for out-of-work Texans — and their landlords
[5 a.m.] It’s the first of the month, which means that for millions of Texans, the rent is due.
But much has changed since a month ago. Thousands of people have lost their jobs as the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down businesses across the state. Many more have taken pay cuts. Now, renters who can’t pay and landlords who are losing rent money are both worried about how they’ll make ends meet.
Most evictions are halted across the state until at least April 20, thanks to a Texas Supreme Court order, but an eviction moratorium isn’t a cure-all. Tenants are still worried about racking up late fees in the meantime and having to back pay several months of rent when the state and city orders lift.
Landlords say they’re hurting, too. They have bills of their own to pay, which are jeopardized when people don’t pay rent on time. And both renters and landlords are waiting on help from the federal government. — Naomi Andu and Stacy Fernández
Texans seeking abortions caught in legal tussle between providers and state officials
[5 a.m.] Potentially hundreds of Texans have had their reproductive health decisions cast into uncertainty as state officials attempt to ban abortion in order to shore up medical resources needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order March 22 barring any procedures that are not “immediately medically necessary.” Attorney General Ken Paxton subsequently declared that the order applies to any abortions not considered critical to protect the life or health of the parent, prompting a lawsuit from a group of abortion providers that's already landed before a federal appeals court.
The state can still enforce its ban, according to the latest ruling. That's left many Texans seeking an abortion in limbo about what to do next. — Alana Rocha
Harris County sticks with federal court agreement on bail, which conflicts with Abbott's executive order
[5 a.m.] Instead of following Gov. Greg Abbott's recent executive order about state bail practices, a lawyer for the 16 criminal court judges that preside over low-level offenses in Harris County said judges will continue to comply with practices solidified in a federal court agreement. That will allow for the automatic release of most misdemeanor defendants without collecting bail payment.
Abbott’s order, issued Sunday, suspended much of the state’s bail laws and prohibited people in jail accused or previously convicted of violent crimes from being released on these personal bonds.
A law professor overseeing the Harris County decree advised county officials this week that the federal court order supersedes the governor’s. And he also doubted the constitutionality of Abbott’s order. — Jolie McCullough
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