Ahead of Abbott’s reopening, Council members urge state to address Covid-19 in East Austin

Chad Swiatecki

Ahead of Gov. Greg Abbott’s moves on Monday to allow more Texas businesses to reopen and cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, four members of City Council representing East Austin urged the state to do more to protect vulnerable communities from the virus’ impact.

A letter co-signed by Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council members Natasha Harper-Madison, Pio Renteria and Greg Casar called on Abbott to expand the state’s Medicaid program, end the lawsuit blocking the city’s paid sick leave law, use state reserve funds to increase aid to low-income families, end enforcement of the “show your papers” immigration law, and give local governments more latitude in deciding how to limit the spread of the virus.

Abbott didn’t address those requests in his press conference, which announced changes in restrictions that will allow bars to open at 25 percent capacity and restaurants to increase to 50 percent capacity. His directives will allow office workers and professional services to return to normal activity as long as social distancing precautions are observed. Day care, children’s summer camp programs and summer school activities were also given the OK to resume with the same safeguards.

The letter said Austin’s Latino population makes up more than 60 percent of hospitalizations from Covid-19 infections, despite that group representing roughly one-third of the city’s population, demonstrating a need to address the severity of its impact in East Austin.

“He talked about the process being very data driven and it sounds like even though we’re seeing a disproportionate effect on the Latino community and where positive rates have increased in that community, a lot of his concerns were about the general population,” Garza said of Abbott. “It doesn’t feel like he’s using the data he said he was going to use and it’s really going to happen very fast. We’ve done good work flattening the curve in Austin, but it’s still the same virus and we’re still learning how it’s affecting people, especially in certain communities.”

Garza added that the move to reopen day care centers is of particular concern because of the difficulties of enforcing distancing with young children. She said modeling the city has reviewed from area epidemiologists suggested that the reopening of schools and businesses centered around children would likely lead to a spike in infections locally.

Casar said Abbott’s decisions Monday put more emphasis on business activity than public health, and could lead to drastic increases in new cases and thousands more deaths locally in the coming months.

“The governor continues to focus entirely on sending people back to work without recognizing the serious toll that incomplete plans take on working families, especially those that we’re seeing in communities of color like the Latino community,” he said. “It’s unacceptable for him to not accept federal Medicaid dollars right now and I don’t know how it is that he keeps avoiding the question of not accepting federal health care dollars, or how he and the attorney general can carry on with a lawsuit blocking people’s access to paid sick days.”

Council is expected to consider a resolution Thursday that will call for the creation of a plan to protect at-risk workers, who represent the third major risk group for the virus along with nursing home patients and the city’s homeless population.

Also Monday, a group of public health advocates in the Latino community called for the city to create a task force focused on disparate health outcomes in that population.

Garza said an initial meeting between that group and other city leaders over the weekend suggested the main issue to be addressed is awareness and communication of city policies and public health needs.

“My understanding is they have concerns about the lack of community outreach, and as a Council member I’ve found that is one of the hardest things to do. If there are members of the Latino community that we can activate to help us get the word out, that’s great,” she said. “We need more outreach and public education about things like wearing masks, doing social distancing and how we’re not supposed to be hugging each other or enjoying barbecues right now, because this is still the same contagious virus it was when this first started.”

Photo by Daniel Mayer / CC BY-SA.

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