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Coronavirus in Texas

Coronavirus in Texas: Hard-line conservatives want stay-at-home order relaxed; Paxton issues opinion on temporary tax exemption

Our staff is closely tracking developments on the new coronavirus in Texas. Check here for live updates.

A coronavirus related message on the Fairmont Hotel in downtown Austin on April 12, 2020.

Tuesday’s biggest developments:

  • Texas reports 14,624 cases and 318 deaths
  • Juvenile justice department to halt new admissions for two weeks
  • Paxton issues opinion on application of temporary tax exemption
  • Texas leads U.S. in receiving small-business loans

Pandemics don't qualify Texans for state tax breaks created for disasters

[7:08 p.m.] Gov. Greg Abbott has declared a public health disaster during the spread of the new coronavirus in Texas — but a pair of tax breaks designed to help people prepare for or recover from disasters in the state won’t be available to Texans hurt by this crisis. That’s because these tax breaks, which ease the burden of taxes on property harmed by disasters and create tax-free shopping days to purchase disaster readiness supplies, are designed to meet the needs prompted by natural disasters like hurricanes, floods or wildfires — not pandemics. — Stacy Fernández

Baylor to slash spending by up to $80 million in wake of pandemic

[7:49 p.m.] Baylor University is one of the first major Texas colleges to announce budget cuts due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Linda Livingstone, president of the private school in Waco, said the school is cutting $65 to $80 million from its budget for the fiscal year that starts June 1, anticipating a dip in enrollment due to the coronavirus. In a statement, Livingstone said the virus has slowed the private university’s income and increased students’ dependence on financial aid. — Carrington Tatum

Second Texas prisoner dies of COVID-19

[5 p.m.] Another Texas prisoner who tested positive for the new coronavirus has died. It is the second inmate death connected to COVID-19 that has been reported within the Texas prison system. A correctional officer has also died.

Leonard Clerkly, 62, was taken to the hospital early Saturday from the Pack Unit after reporting trouble breathing and died shortly thereafter, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported Tuesday. The preliminary autopsy states the cause of death as pneumonia due to COVID-19.

The Pack Unit is already named in a lawsuit filed last month against TDCJ claiming protective measures for inmates at the geriatric prison are insufficient. A federal judge has held several hearings on the complaint, including one Monday, but Clerkly’s death was not mentioned until an emergency hearing in the court Tuesday.

As of Tuesday, 236 state prisoners and 97 TDCJ employees had tested positive for the virus, according to the agency. — Jolie McCullough

Texans have received the most in small-business loans from the federal government

[4:05 p.m.] Last month, Congress approved a disaster relief package that included $350 million for small businesses impacted by the economic shutdown required to slow the novel coronavirus' spread.

According to The New York Times, Texas has since gotten 88,400 of more than a million loans given out nationwide. Texas’ loans total $22 billion, which is $900 million more than California’s and almost double what New York has received.

If businesses use the money to hold on to their staffs, the loans will ultimately be forgiven.

From March 15 to April 4, 744,855 people applied for unemployment benefits in Texas, more than the total number of applicants for 2019. — Carrington Tatum

Hardline Republicans ask Abbott to relax statewide stay-at-home order

[4:35 p.m.] The hardline conservative Texas House Freedom Caucus has asked Gov. Greg Abbott to relax his statewide stay-at-home order to begin reopening the state’s economy.

“We respectfully ask that you loosen your state-wide executive order to the greatest extent possible while giving local jurisdictions the flexibility to respond to local jurisdictions,” the letter, dated Tuesday and signed by caucus members, reads.

The letter is the latest push from this faction of the GOP to start sending Texans back to work. State Rep. Matt Krause, a Fort Worth Republican and member of the caucus, sent his own letter to Abbott on Monday with suggestions to “get Texans working while still staying safe & healthy.” And state Rep. Mike Lang, R-Granbury, another caucus member, sent a letter to Abbott on Tuesday urging him “to continue your efforts to open up the Texas economy as soon as possible.”

Abbott said at a news conference Monday that he plans to make an announcement later this week about reopening business in the state. He also made clear that reopening the state’s economy will be a “slow process.”

“This is not gonna be a rush-the-gates, everybody-is-able-to-suddenly-reopen-all-at-once” situation, he said. — Cassandra Pollock

Texas programs among those housing 21 migrant children in medical isolation

[3:15 p.m.] As of Tuesday, 21 unaccompanied migrant children with active cases of COVID-19 are in medical isolation in two Texas programs, as well as an Illinois program, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency in charge of their care.

None of the children have required hospitalization, the agency said. To date, 27 migrant children have tested positive for the virus, and six recovered and were moved from medical isolation. Children in the agency’s care are tested based on the recommendation of a health care provider or public health department. Affiliated personnel have mandatory temperature checks before they enter the Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities. Among personnel affiliated with ORR programs in seven states, 53 have self-reported as positive for COVID-19. — Stacy Fernández

Juvenile justice department to halt new admissions for two weeks

[2:15 p.m.] As a safety measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the state won’t put anyone new in its juvenile detention facilities for two weeks, said Camille Cain, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department's executive director.

The decision, which Cain announced in a news release Tuesday, is in effect through April 27 but could be extended. As of Tuesday, no youths in a state facility have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the statement. — Stacy Fernández

Paxton issues opinion on application of temporary tax exemption

[1:05 p.m.] Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has issued an opinion that “purely economic, non-physical damage to property caused by the COVID-19 disaster” is not eligible for the state temporary tax exemption.

The nonbinding opinion, issued April 13, came at the request of state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who asked Paxton last week for guidance on the issue. Bettencourt's request was related to a section of the tax code that legislators approved in 2019, in response to property damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

“Section 11.35 of the Tax Code creates a temporary tax exemption for qualified property damaged by a disaster, as declared by the Governor,” Paxton wrote. “A court would likely conclude that the Legislature intended to limit the temporary tax exemption to apply to property physically harmed as a result of a declared disaster.” — Cassandra Pollock

Texas reports 14,624 cases and 318 deaths

[12:30 p.m.] Texas reported 718 more cases of the new coronavirus Tuesday, an increase of about 5% over the previous day, bringing the total number of known cases to 14,624.

Three counties reported their first cases Tuesday; more than two-thirds of the state’s 254 counties have reported at least one case.

Harris County has reported the most cases, 3,747, followed by Dallas County, which has reported 1,788 cases. The totals do not include new deaths reported Tuesday morning in Dallas County.

The state has reported 31 additional deaths, bringing the statewide total to 318 — an increase of about 11% from Monday. Harris County reported two additional deaths, bringing its total to 46 deaths, more than any other county.

As of Tuesday, 1,409 patients are known to be hospitalized in Texas. That’s an increase of 233 patients from Monday. At least 146,467 tests have been conducted. — Carla Astudillo

$811.5 million in federal aid going toward Texas airports

[12:25 p.m.] An $811.5 million infusion is coming to Texas airports to support operation and payroll expenses, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Tuesday. The grant is funded through the $2 trillion pandemic relief bill known as the CARES Act.

The money will go toward supporting continuing operations and replacing revenue lost amid the sharp decline in passenger traffic and other airport business because of the COVID-19 public health emergency. The funds are available for airport capital expenditures, airport operating expenses including payroll and utilities, and airport debt payments. — Stacy Fernández

Report: Up to a third of Texas coronavirus-related deaths occurred in long-term care facilities

[10:50 a.m.] As many as one-third of known coronavirus-related deaths in Texas occurred in long-term care facilities like nursing homes or assisted living communities, The Dallas Morning News reports.

At least one resident or staff member tested positive for the virus in 16% of the state’s 198 nursing homes. Fifty-two of the state’s 2,002 assisted care facilities confirmed infection, the paper reported. Across the state, 70 people died of COVID-19 in nursing homes and 24 people died in assisted living facilities as of Monday.

Statewide, the number of deaths reached 287 on Monday. Health officials say the actual percentage of Texas coronavirus deaths in long-term care facilities is probably higher, between 25% and 33%, the Morning News reported. The discrepancy in numbers comes from the lag between when long-term care facilities report updates to the health commission and when statewide numbers are posted. — Stacy Fernández

Jenkins: Dallas County announcing at least 10 more deaths

[8:40 a.m.] During an interview with The Texas Tribune’s Patrick Svitek on Tuesday morning, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said the county will announce at least 10 new deaths and “a lot of new illnesses” at a 10 a.m. press conference.

“Every one of those is a person with a family, so that gives concern,” Jenkins said. He added that the county appears to be flattening its curve. “That's giving us cause for optimism and hope,” Jenkins said. “But we’re in the middle, we’re not in the end, so we have to stay focused. ... Don’t let up now.”

Jenkins said it was too early to tell whether the county would extend its stay-at-home order, which is set to expire April 30. Jenkins said he’ll make a decision as the date nears. — Alex Samuels

Texas officials to discuss request that state cut oil production

[5 a.m.] Attention from across the oil and gas world will turn to Texas on Tuesday as state regulators hold a virtual public meeting to consider cutting oil production, which hasn’t been done in the state since the 1970s.

The single item on Tuesday’s agenda of the Texas Railroad Commission is to discuss the request of two large Texas oil companies, Pioneer Natural Resources based in Irving and Parsley Energy based in Austin, that the state cut oil production as global demand has plunged. At Tuesday's meeting, the commission is expected to “determine reasonable market demand for oil in the state of Texas.”

Despite its name, the Texas Railroad Commission regulates the huge oil and gas industry and not railroads.

The price of West Texas Intermediate crude closed at around $23 per barrel Monday, following a development Sunday in which a large group of oil-producing countries, including Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States, agreed to slash oil production by 9.7 million barrels a day beginning in May, which amounts to the largest-ever coordinated cut.

But the devastating decline in oil consumption as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has already affected Texas oil producers.

Chairman Wayne Christian and Commissioners Christi Craddick and Ryan Sitton will lead the 9:30 a.m. commission meeting. There are 55 speakers scheduled to provide three-minute presentations, and written comments have been submitted to the commissioners by the scheduled speakers and others across the industry. — Mitchell Ferman

Coronavirus alters parole programs Texas prisoners must complete before being released

[5 a.m.] As the nation is seeing a push to get more people out from behind bars during the new coronavirus outbreak, Texas advocates are asking the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to immediately release people who have already been granted parole but still need to complete education or treatment programs. They argue that these people can continue their programs online or outside of prisons, which are known incubators for disease.

But the idea of increased release has met steady resistance from some law enforcement and Texas officials who fear letting more people out of prison and jail could lead to more crime during what is already a disastrous time for the state.

But relatives of Texas prisoners approved for parole question why their loved ones have to stay in disease-prone facilities while completing programs they say could be done virtually and from home. — Jolie McCullough

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