We'll be updating this story throughout the day Friday with the latest local news on the coronavirus pandemic. If you'd like to go through a roundup of COVID-19 news from Thursday, read it here. If you have a news tip or question, email us at news@KUT.org.
Update at 4:57 p.m. – Texas gets the go-ahead for additional rental assistance money
The State of Texas has gotten the OK from the federal government to distribute up to $11.3 million to counties, cities, housing authorities and nonprofits to use as rental assistance for people affected financially by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs said Friday organizations can apply for funds, which means it could be several weeks before this money gets into the hands of tenants.
The state is also receiving about $33 million from the federal stimulus bill, or the CARES Act, which a department spokesperson said could be used for rental assistance or to help people facing homelessness, such as paying past due rent. That money will also be distributed through local governments and nonprofits.
Update at 4:42 p.m. – Travis County residents can apply for medical access program online
Low-income people in Travis County who need health coverage can now sign up for the county’s medical access program, or MAP, online.
County officials said they have seen an uptick in enrollment as more people lose their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
MAP acts like health insurance, but isn’t actually a health insurance plan. The program provides people who qualify with primary care, pharmacy benefits, urgent care, specialty care and hospital services, as needed.
In an effort to make the program more accessible, Travis County officials have created an application portal for residents.
Kit Abney Spelce with Central Health said the program is open to the many residents who have lost their job and insurance – especially recently.
“If you are a Travis County resident and uninsured, go ahead and apply,” she said. “Applying is free. I never want somebody to self-identify themselves out.”
Spelce said before the pandemic, 70% of applications for MAP were handled in-person. The rest were conducted through a telephone service. She said the online application will make it easier for the county to serve more people in need from the safety of their own homes.
– Ashley Lopez
Update at 4:08 p.m. – Economic uncertainty has some calling for change of plans for I-35 plan
The Texas Transportation Commission could vote next week to allocate $3.4 billion to the part of the I-35 Capital Express project that would run through Central Austin. But even some supporters of the project expressed concerns during a public hearing Friday. They say the commission should consider other funding mechanisms in the light of ongoing economic uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“TxDOT’s budget, which is fed by gasoline tax, oil severance tax, sales tax, clearly is going to be hit hard and suffer, making it a challenge for TxDOT to use $3.4 billion in cash on just one project,” Jeff Moseley, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said. “This project is perfectly suited to harness private financing to get it built timely, and especially in these economic times, saving billions in tax dollars for other important needs around the state.”
Those measures, and using tolled lanes, are not on the table yet. The proposal would add two new managed lanes, likely HOV lanes, to I-35 in both directions. The northern and southern portions have funding and work would begin in 2022.
Last month, the chairs of the transportation committees in the Texas House and Senate asked the commission to delay its vote because of the uncertainty. Even if the commission votes to approve the plan Thursday, it will have to take another vote in August to approve another $300 million in funding.
Earlier this week, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board voted to allocate $633 million to the project. To do so, it will have to defer other projects in the region until more money can be found.
– Samuel King
Update at 2:27 p.m. – At the ARCH, gratitude for community support
As of Friday, the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless said it had only one client who tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic arrived in Austin.
Amy Price, director of communications for ARCH-operator Front Steps, told KUT's Andrew Weber that that patient is now on the mend. She credited the shelter's dearth of cases to a policy requiring staff and clients to wear masks at all times. That policy was initially tough to maintain due to a lack of supplies, she said, but hundreds of masks have been donated by churches and volunteers in the last few weeks.
Price said one recent donation of hundreds of masks from the Oak Hill United Methodist Church in South Austin made her especially grateful:
Update at 1:28 p.m. – UT Austin announces virtual spring commencement ceremony
UT Austin will have a virtual spring 2020 commencement ceremony Saturday, May 23, the university announced today. The ceremony will be broadcast live online starting at 9 p.m.
Brené Brown, a visiting professor of management at the McCombs School of Business, will be the commencement speaker.
UT Austin is conducting the remainder of the spring semester online; summer classes will also be online. The university said it expects to know more in late June about what will happen with the fall semester.
More details about the commencement and information about specific colleges can be found here.
Update at 9:49 a.m. – Retail-to-go starts up in Texas
Retail stores can begin curbside pickup today, marking another step in Gov. Greg Abbott's plan to restart the economy. For stores that had to close during the pandemic, selling anything to-go or by through curbside pickup is better than nothing.
"It definitely helps. It's much needed," Greg Grovey, owner of Kicking it ATX, tells KUT's Jimmy Maas. "Anything at this moment will help until the world is open again."
Grovey's sneaker shop in the Domain was deemed nonessential and ordered closed last month. Since then, he has been getting by with online orders, but he’s down 75% of sales and had to lay off four staffers. He says “retail to-go” will not likely get him anywhere close to where the store was before the virus.
Some chains have yet to announce any curbside plans, while others are approaching it cautiously. Half Price Books will start pickup at its stores, but is operating with only 20 percent of the staff it had last month. According to its website, only five stores at Barton Creek Mall are planning to fill to-go orders.
Update at 5:30 a.m. — Now-virtual fundraiser supports art program for people experiencing homelessness
Give Art a Home, a fundraiser supporting the Austin nonprofit Art From the Streets, won’t be happening in person this year, but it’s taking a new form online.
Art From the Streets serves people experiencing homelessness by offering up an art studio four days a week where people can create works of art. It also hosts enrichment opportunities, art shows and art sales throughout the year.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced the studio to close for now, but the organization is raising money so it can continue providing its services once it opens again. The Give Art a Home Virtual Gala began Thursday evening and runs until noon on Sunday.
As part of the fundraiser, Art From the Streets is posting video clips about the program and updates on how its artists are doing during the pandemic. People can participate in an online silent auction or donate directly.
Catch up on what happened yesterday
Austin and Travis County form task force to look at how to reopen the economy in 'mindful' way
The City of Austin and Travis County are partnering to form a task force focused on reopening the local economy. The Opening Central Texas for Business Task Force will be spearheaded by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
"We do need to find ways to adapt to COVID-19 and begin commerce in a mindful and measured way," Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said at a news conference Thursday.
She reiterated that the most important concern when it comes to opening up businesses is to avoid overloading the capacity of area hospitals.
“There’s just no getting around the fact that an opening of commerce will increase our infection rate," Eckhardt said. "We cannot afford herd immunity. Herd immunity would mean thousands of deaths in Travis County and the five-county region.”
The task force will make recommendations about the safest ways to reopen businesses after May 8. That’s when the current stay-at-home order for Austin and Travis County is set to expire.
Other local coronavirus news from Thursday:
The Austin Independent School District is resuming its weekend meal program. Starting Friday, families with students under the age of 19 can pick up packages of six meals at 16 schools between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. The Austin City Council will set aside $2.3 million in federal money to house the homeless during the coronavirus pandemic. Austin Public Health debuted an online tool where potential patients can input their symptoms and then, if necessary, get a referral to a COVID-19 testing site. Austin City Council members approved moving $1.5 million from the city’s reserve funds into the Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund, a program for musicians who’ve lost wages because of the coronavirus pandemic. Abortion providers are no longer banned from performing the procedure in Texas, state officials said in a court filing Thursday morning,
What's happening statewide? Check out special coverage from KERA for North Texas, Houston Public Media, Texas Public Radio in San Antonio and Marfa Public Radio.
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