Monday's biggest developments:
- Carnival to launch three cruises from Galveston in August
- House Speaker Dennis Bonnen blasts major retailers for not enforcing social distancing
- Texas reports 32,332 cases and 884 deaths
Employers can fill jobs if workers opt not to return to work because of coronavirus, Texas Workforce Commission says
[3:45 p.m.] Gov. Greg Abbott’s office released flexible guidelines last week allowing certain employees to refuse to return to work and still receive unemployment benefits. But according to the Texas Workforce Commission, employers don’t have to hold onto those jobs for people until they’re able to return to work.
“The employer does have a right to replace an employee if that employee is not able to go to work,” said Cisco Gamez, a spokesman for the commission. “That person who is not able to go to work because of COVID-19 reasons, they may still be eligible for benefits on a case-by-case basis.”
People who are high risk — over the age of 65 or with underlying health conditions, per the Texas Department of State Health Services — can refuse to return to work and still receive unemployment insurance. This exception also applies to workers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or live with someone who’s high risk or has the virus. People can also refuse to return to work if they are self-quarantining or lack access to child care.
Since the week ending March 14, more than 2.1 million Texans have filed for unemployment, Gamez said. The commission has paid out more than $3.4 billion in benefits from state and federal funding. — Clare Proctor
Lawsuit claims ICE's El Paso field office is making detained immigrants' communication with lawyers impossible during coronavirus
[3:30 p.m.] The Trump administration has been hit with a lawsuit alleging it is systematically violating the basic constitutional rights of detained immigrants by making communication with attorneys nearly impossible.
The lawsuit states, among other allegations, that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from the El Paso field office are denying detainees access to counsel by severely limiting or eliminating telephone use inside the El Paso Processing Center and the Otero County Processing Center. (Otero is in New Mexico but in the El Paso office’s jurisdiction.)
The lawsuit is a class-action filing that alleges lack of telephone use is even more dire during the new coronavirus pandemic, which has severely limited in-person visits.
“In-person visits by out-of-state counsel to El Paso or Otero often are prohibitively expensive and unreasonably time-consuming. In-person visits by any counsel — including local attorneys — have been rendered impossible with the COVID-19-related shutdowns,” the filing states.
The chief complaints in the lawsuit include that ICE officials in those centers are obstructing access to all confidential communications with attorneys, allowing for no privacy to plaintiffs when they are able to make calls and, when calls are made available, only providing options that are “prohibitively” costly.
ICE is also not providing indigent detainees with free telephone access to reach out to nonprofit services providers or government entities.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new attention to the allegations, attorneys said the practice has been in place since late last year.
“Immigration Justice Campaign staff and volunteers have been tracking this issue since we began remote bond work in El Paso last fall,” said Katie Shepherd, an attorney with the Immigration Justice Campaign. “ICE repeatedly assured us that they were working on a solution, but these turned out to be empty promises, making litigation the necessary next step.”
ICE declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying it does not discuss pending litigation.
Texas reports 32,332 cases and 884 deaths
[1:15 p.m.] Texas reported 784 more cases of the new coronavirus Monday, an increase of about 2% over the previous day, bringing the total number of known cases to 32,332. Refugio County reported its first case Monday; over 80% of the state’s 254 counties have reported at least one case.
Harris County has reported the most cases, 6,838, followed by Dallas County, which has reported 4,133 cases. See maps of the latest case numbers for each county and case rates per 1,000 residents.
The state has reported 17 additional deaths, bringing the statewide total to 884 — an increase of about 2% from Sunday. Harris County reported four additional deaths, bringing its total to 133 deaths, more than any other county.
As of Monday, 1,533 patients are known to be hospitalized in Texas. That’s a decrease of seven patients from Sunday. At least 407,398 tests have been conducted. — Anna Novak
Ahead of key meeting, Texas oil regulator says idea to cut production is likely "dead"
[12:35 p.m.] As demand for oil has plunged across the world, Texas oil regulators are not expected to impose cuts to production Tuesday, a move that has been discussed widely since the coronavirus began spreading in the United States.
The commission, which regulates the state’s huge oil and gas industry, is holding a public virtual meeting Tuesday, and Sitton said the process to potentially curb oil production in Texas — also called prorationing — has been “purely a political discussion.”
“I think proration is dead now,” Sitton said.
Railroad Commission Chairman Wayne Christian wrote an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle last week opposing prorationing. The third commissioner, Christi Craddick, has not said whether she will support the issue, but Sitton said the commissioners may not even take a vote during Tuesday’s meeting. — Mitchell Ferman
Bonnen warns big retailers to enforce social distancing
[12:20 p.m.] Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen warned Monday morning that major retail stores may be hindering the ability of smaller businesses to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic by not following guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus.
In a series of tweets, the outgoing GOP speaker cited “some of our largest home improvement superstores,” saying workers are not wearing masks and keeping 6 feet of distance. He put the onus on the stores’ “corporate owners” to make sure the guidelines are being followed, suggesting their negligence hurts small businesses that would like to reopen soon.
"These owners are the engine moving the reopening of Texas forward so they can pay their bills and employees,” Bonnen wrote. "It is time we start calling out the retail giants for their disgusting disregard for the safety of others and the well-being of their neighboring businesses.”
Bonnen’s tweets come three days after Texas reopened all stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls at 25% capacity. The businesses to which Bonnen is apparently referring have remained open through the pandemic because they were classified as essential services under Gov. Greg Abbott’s stay-at-home order, which expired Thursday.
"I’m tired of navigating a germ pool in an overcrowded Lowe’s, Home Depot, and WalMart,” Bonnen said. "They haven’t dealt with the devastation of having to turn customers away and yet their behavior might be what keeps hair salons and gyms closed and restaurants at restricted capacity.”
Abbott has held off on reopening hair salons and gyms for now, suggesting he could do so in a May 18 announcement or sooner. But pressure has been building, including among some Republicans in the House, to reopen those businesses immediately.
As part of the Abbott order that went into effect Friday, all businesses are asked to keep employees at least 6 feet apart from others and to “consider having all employees wear cloth face coverings.” More broadly, Abbott has encouraged all Texans to wear face coverings but has not required it, and he has prevented local governments from doling out punishment for noncompliance. — Patrick Svitek
Carnival to launch three cruises from Galveston in August
[9:40 a.m.] Carnival Cruise Line will begin to phase in service Aug. 1 with eight ships — including three leaving from Galveston, the cruise line announced Monday.
The other five cruises are set to depart from two Florida cities: Miami and Port Canaveral. The rest of the company’s cruises are canceled through at least the end of August, according to a statement. The cruise line said it chose these cities because they’re where the company has “significant operations that are easily accessible by car for the majority of our guests.”
Cruise ships across the world were the sites of early outbreaks for the new coronavirus. In February, cruise ship evacuees quarantined at a San Antonio military base were among the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas. A U.S. House committee announced last week that it's investigating Carnival for its handling of the crisis.
"We are committed to supporting all public health efforts to manage the COVID-19 situation," the company said in a statement. "We are taking a measured approach, focusing our return to service on a select number of homeports where we have more significant operations that are easily accessible by car for the majority of our guests." — Stacy Fernández
Health experts say it's time for more testing and fewer Texas prison inmates
[5 a.m.] The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has tested about 1,700 symptomatic inmates for the new coronavirus — about 1% of the state’s prison population, according to department reports. More than 70% of those inmates have tested positive. At least 25 infected prisoners and employees have died. But, like in the rest of the state, the scope of the virus’ spread in prisons is still largely unknown because testing has been limited.
Epidemiologists say more testing is needed in prisons because they are incubators for disease, which can endanger prisoners, staff and surrounding communities. “Most [prison outbreaks] have begun with introductions from staff," said Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
TDCJ’s coronavirus policies have evolved during the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott directed the prisons to cancel all inmate visitation, and the units increased their cleaning, among other efforts. Some lawmakers and advocates have praised TDCJ for how it has tackled a complex, ever-changing crisis. But infectious disease experts and prisoner rights advocates say much more needs to be done, starting with mass testing of inmates and reducing the overall prisoner population. — Jolie McCullough
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