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Coronavirus in Texas

Coronavirus in Texas: Prisons will increase testing; state files price gouging lawsuit over egg prices

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

A handful of cars drive down Grant Avenue Thursday evening as an advertisement from Medical Center Hospital urges communit...

Thursday's biggest developments

  • Texas reports just under 22,000 COVID-19 cases and 561 deaths
  • San Antonio announces $25 million program to help residents pay bills
  • Attorney general's lawsuit claims egg producer is price gouging
  • Texas prisons will ramp up testing for inmates and employees

El Paso County officials mandate face coverings for people in public

[6:58 p.m.] EL PASO — El Paso County residents are required to wear face coverings in public until further notice, local officials said Thursday. But leaders also loosened restrictions for attendance at public parks and said retail to-go or delivery services will begin in the coming days.

The moves come as El Paso joins the ranks of other large Texas cities trying to balance resident safety with a soft reopening of local economies. But El Paso County continues to see daily double-digit increases in positive cases of the new coronavirus, with at least 674 testing positive as of Thursday.

Mayor Dee Margo also announced a public-private partnership with the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation and the Paso del Norte Health Foundation to help coordinate the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. — Julián Aguilar

Some Fort Worth bars say they'll reopen despite any restrictions

[5:22 p.m.] Several Fort Worth bars plan to open May 1 regardless of state and local restrictions that may still be in place at that time, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. The list of bars, in the Stockyards district, includes Thirsty Armadillo, Stampede Saloon, Pearl’s Dance Hall and the Basement Bar, which said in a Facebook post that it had “played the game long enough.”

Currently, the establishments can only provide to-go and curbside service. Gov. Greg Abbott said he will announce new guidance for businesses by Monday, but it’s unclear whether the state will allow in-person dining at restaurants and bars. Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said Tuesday that the county could be as much as four weeks away from reducing its restrictions — which can cost violators a $1,000 fine and up to 180 days in jail.

The Basement Bar will limit capacity to 25-50 people and try to keep 6 feet of distance between patrons, according to a spokesperson. The bar is also considering taking customers' temperatures and giving out face masks at the door, as well as installing ultraviolet lights — a measure that goes against the World Health Organization’s recommendations. — Naomi Andu

San Antonio will spend $25 million to help people pay their bills

[4:30 p.m.] The San Antonio City Council approved a $25 million program Thursday to assist people struggling to make ends meet after being laid off or furloughed during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a city press release.

The COVID-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program will run through July 31. To be eligible, a resident must be the primary lease or mortgage holder within city limits, provide proof of financial hardship, and have an income at or below the area median income of $72,000 for a family of four. The money can go to rent, utilities, groceries, medicine and fuel, and the program will pay landlords, financial institutions, internet and utility providers directly. Cash assistance of up to $300 will also be available.

The money comes from various sources, including $5.2 million from a Housing and Urban Development block grant and $7.7 million from the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act.

“These programs are needed now more than ever,” City Manager Erik Walsh said. “The COVID-19 crisis has shaken the financial stability of tens of thousands of our residents. This program will help residents make ends meet as they try to stay healthy, keep a roof over their heads and get food on the table for their families.” — Naomi Andu

State sues egg producer for alleged price gouging

[3:05 p.m.] Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit Thursday in a Harris County court claiming that Cal-Maine Foods Inc., the largest producer of eggs in the country, is price gouging, according to a press release.

The price of a dozen eggs was around $1 in early March but has since skyrocketed to more than $3, though there are no issues with supply or significant disruptions, according to the court filing. Paxton said Cal-Maine is “simply charging more because it can, or, more specifically, because the pandemic caused market demand to jump.”

Jeff Eller, a Cal-Maine spokesperson, disputed the allegations in a statement Thursday and said the company will defend itself against what it called "government overreach into agriculture."

"The domestic egg market is intensely competitive and highly volatile," Eller said. "For decades, we have priced most of our sales off an independent, third-party market quote published by Urner Barry Publications, Inc. We have no control over this market quote and it fluctuates wildly from week to week and sometimes day to day. We have been consistent in our pricing practices whether we sell at a profit or at a loss."

Penalties for violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act include fines of up to $10,000 per violation, plus an additional $250,000 if elderly consumers were affected. — Naomi Andu

Prisons increase COVID-19 testing for inmates, employees

[1:50 p.m.] The Texas prison system will start larger-scale testing of some inmates and employees who have been exposed to the new coronavirus, according to an agency spokesperson.

The virus has swept through many Texas prison units; nearly 600 inmates of about 900 tested based on medical requests had the virus, according to reports from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. At least five prisoners and three employees with the virus have died. But despite outbreaks at some units, the agency had not performed mass testing of inmates who were exposed except at one dorm in a prison involved in a pandemic-related lawsuit.

On Friday and Saturday, testing will be available to TDCJ employees at the Beto Unit, a prison near Palestine with a large number of cases, and some inmate testing at that prison and other units will follow, TDCJ spokesperson Jeremy Desel said. He could not specify how many inmates would be tested but said it would not be entire prisons. The Beto Unit can hold more than 3,000 inmates.

As of Tuesday, nearly 200 inmates had tested positive for the virus while housed at Beto, Desel said. Many inmates at the prison have been moved to other units, but the number of cases continues to rise.

After consulting with the Texas Department of State Health Services, TDCJ decided to move forward with “surveillance testing” of those who have been exposed but aren’t necessarily ill. Previously, it conducted and reported only “medical testing” after a doctor ordered a test for a symptomatic inmate. It’s unknown how, or if, surveillance test results will be reported, Desel said. — Jolie McCullough

Texas reports 21,944 cases and 561 deaths

[12:25 p.m.] Texas reported 875 more cases of the new coronavirus Thursday, an increase of about 4% over the previous day, bringing the total number of known cases to 21,944.

Two new counties reported their first cases Thursday; over three quarters of the state’s 254 counties have reported at least one case. Harris County has reported the most cases, 5,211, followed by Dallas County, which has reported 2,683 cases. See maps of the latest case numbers for each county and case rates per 1,000 residents.

The state has reported 18 additional deaths, bringing the statewide total to 561 — an increase of about 3% from Wednesday. Harris County reported one additional death, bringing its total to 80 deaths, more than any other county. As of Thursday, 1,849 patients are known to be hospitalized in Texas. That’s an increase of 171 patients from Wednesday. At least 225,078 tests have been conducted. — Carla Astudillo

UT to decide fall semester plans before July

[6 a.m.] Gov. Greg Abbott has canceled in-person classes across the state in the spring. Now attention is turning to what will happen at schools this fall. University of Texas at Austin President Greg Fenves and interim President Designate Jay Hartzell said in an email to the campus community Wednesday that a decision for the fall semester will be made by the end of June. They said that will allow the university time to gather more information about the spread of the new coronavirus, the availability of testing and what social distancing measures will be needed.

"This timing will enable faculty to prepare their classes and curriculums so that they can deliver the extraordinary educational experiences UT is known for," they said in their email. "It will also provide time for our dedicated staff members to reopen the facilities, integrate new learning technologies and prepare to implement new health-conscious practices and policies." — Matthew Watkins

Disclosure: The Paso Del Norte Health Foundation and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters 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.

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