Wednesday’s biggest developments
- Texas reports 9,353 cases and 177 deaths
- San Antonio plans to furlough 270 workers
- Texas A&M will repurpose animal viral test kits for human use
Dallas closing city parks for Easter weekend
[9:15 p.m.] Dallas is the latest big city in Texas to announce the temporary closure of local parks this weekend in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Similar announcements came from other big cities, including Austin, San Antonio and El Paso, earlier in the day ahead of what is typically a busy weekend at parks across the state. — Alexa Ura
Texas Supreme Court dismisses church petition
[5 p.m.] The Texas Supreme Court dismissed a petition Wednesday that claimed Harris County’s stay-at-home order, which closed churches and limited worship services to video or teleconference calls, violates the First Amendment. The three Houston-area pastors and the outspoken conservative activist who filed the petition asked the court to dismiss it after Gov. Greg Abbott announced last week that churches are an essential service and can remain open.
While many churches have moved to online services, Abbott’s order gave them the green light to hold services in-person as long as they follow health guidance to keep patrons 6 feet apart. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo subsequently modified the county’s stay-at-home order to be in line with Abbott’s order. — Stacy Fernández
ACLU sues for release of four detained immigrants
[3:55 p.m.] The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas is suing the Trump administration, arguing for the release of four immigrants detained at the Montgomery Processing Center in Conroe.
The lawsuit alleges that the detainees, whose ages range from 28 to 58, must be released because they have underlying medical conditions that could lead to serious illness or death if they become infected with the new coronavirus. An employee at the processing center tested positive for the virus March 23.
“Detainees at MPC live in extremely close quarters and cannot engage in risk mitigation as instructed by public health authorities,” the lawsuit states. “Keeping vulnerable detainees in an environment in which social distancing and the necessary hygiene measures are impossible and waiting for COVID-19 to explode at MPC creates not only a humanitarian crisis but also a constitutional one.”
All of the plaintiffs are fighting immigration cases, the ACLU stated. The lawsuit is one of 11 that have been filed nationwide since the pandemic began. In late March, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ordered the release of 11 immigrants in detention after the ACLU filed a similar lawsuit. — Julián Aguilar
Cities closing popular parks for Easter weekend
[3:28 p.m.] Some of Texas’ biggest cities and counties are closing local parks this weekend to deter people from gathering in large groups during Easter weekend. Parks and popular hike and bike trails in Austin, San Antonio and El Paso will be closed, as will those in Harris County outside of Houston's city limits.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday that the city's parks will remain open, the Houston Chronicle reported. Dallas has yet to announce whether its parks will be closed for Easter weekend. — Stacy Fernández
San Antonio to furlough 270 city workers
[3:10 p.m.] San Antonio will furlough 270 city employees because of the new coronavirus, spokesperson Jeff Coyle said in a written statement Wednesday. The affected employees work for departments funded by local hotel taxes, including the city's convention center and the Alamodome, Coyle said.
The furlough begins April 23 and is expected to last until the end of July, he said. Employees will continue to receive health coverage during the furlough period, and the city will do a mass filing for unemployment benefits for affected employees, Coyle said.
“These employees are valued members of our team, but with little to no events scheduled for several months, the revenue shortfalls are so significant that we have to take steps now to put us in a position to ramp up operations again when the public health crisis subsides,” City Manager Erik Walsh said in a written statement. — Stacy Fernández
Texas reports 9,353 cases and 177 deaths
[1:30 p.m.] Texas reported 1,091 more cases of the new coronavirus Wednesday, an increase of about 13% over the previous day, bringing the total number of known cases to 9,353. Six 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, 2,146, followed by Dallas County, which has reported 1,261 cases.
The state has reported 23 additional deaths, bringing the statewide total to 177 — an increase of about 15% from Tuesday. Harris County reported one additional death, bringing its total to 23 deaths, more than any other county.
As of Wednesday, 1,491 patients are known to be hospitalized in Texas. At least 96,258 tests have been conducted. — Mandi Cai
Lawmakers call for halt to bullet train project after layoffs
[12:01 p.m.] A group of Texas lawmakers is asking the federal government halt work on the Dallas-to-Houston bullet train after the company in charge of the project laid off 28 workers because of the new coronavirus pandemic, The Dallas Morning News has reported.
“It has become clear Texas Central Railroad simply does not have the financial resources required or expertise employed to continue with this project,” says the letter posted online by Rep. John Wray, R-Waxahachie, and signed by 28 lawmakers. “To proceed otherwise would be an inexcusable waste of taxpayer dollars and jeopardizes the integrity of the rules-making process at the Federal Railroad Administration.”
The train project, projected to make 90-minute trips possible between two of Texas’ biggest cities, was expected to break ground sometime this year and be completed by 2026, the newspaper reported. Two weeks ago, Texas Central, the company leading the project, said construction will begin once its permits are approved. Permits are expected to come in by the end of July, Carlos Aguilar, the company’s CEO, said in a written statement.
Although the project is “shovel-ready,” it is dependent on financial entities in the United States, Europe and Japan, Aguilar said. —Stacy Fernández
More than 2,000 sampling kits typically used on animals are repurposed to test humans
[11:40 a.m.] The Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory is repurposing more than 2,000 viral sampling kits typically used on animals to test for the new coronavirus in humans, according to a Monday statement from the university.
The more than 2,000 kits — which have been used to test pigs, cows and chickens — come from supplies already in stock at four of Texas A&M’s veterinary labs. Each consists of a swab, a vial with transport media to preserve the sample, and a bag. All the components of the sampling kit are approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the university said. To help with the rising demand for coronavirus testing, the kits are being sent out to hospitals in towns with Texas A&M campuses.
A&M Chancellor John Sharp said in a Wednesday interview with The Texas Tribune that these tests “work very well in detecting COVID-19 in humans.”
“No one has ever done this before, but tough times call for creative measures,” Sharp said in the news release. “The very same experts who help track disease outbreaks in animals have put their minds to the biggest problem we all face today and doing what they can to help.” — Clare Proctor
Food banks face grocery shortage as demand surges
[5 a.m.] As thousands of Texans are suddenly out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic, demand for assistance from food banks is skyrocketing. Meanwhile, volunteers are scarce and food is harder to come by since grocery stores have less surplus to donate because their own shelves are depleted from panic buying.
Many food banks are enrolled in surplus programs in which grocers donate food they can no longer sell — like granola bar boxes with a missing bar, crushed cereal packages and baked goods nearing the expiration date — but for weeks, grocery stores have been limiting their donations because of their own dwindling supply. — Stacy Fernández
State officials won't release comprehensive data on infections in nursing homes
[5 a.m.] Hundreds of Texas nursing home residents and staff members have tested positive for the new coronavirus. Texas officials acknowledge they're tracking data on infected people living or working at nursing homes. But, unlike other states, Texas isn't releasing such comprehensive data.
The Texas Tribune collected numbers of such patients from various public health departments and local news reports and found at least 320 residents and workers at nursing homes have been infected. But those findings likely underrepresent the extent of the COVID-19 outbreak in the state's nursing facilities. — Edgar Walters and Carla Astudillo
Gov. Abbott to address efforts to care for those infected
[5 a.m.] Gov. Greg Abbott is scheduled to update Texans on the state's efforts to combat the novel coronavirus' spread and provide care to those infected. He will speak at 2 p.m. Wednesday, and his remarks will be livestreamed.
Texas reported 986 more cases of the virus Tuesday, a 14% increase over the previous day, bringing the total number of known cases to 8,262. The latest available figures show more than 1,200 patients were hospitalized in the state. As of Tuesday, a total of 154 Texans had died.
Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.